In August of 2021, Arifa Sanjar, 18, Zahra Mosavi, 19, and Hadisa Rezayee, 18, found themselves stranded outside Kabul airport with a group of 170 students. The Taliban had just taken control of the country and they were among the thousands hoping to evacuate—even if it meant leaving their families behind. The situation was tense and dangerous. 

“We saw gunfire,” Zahra says. “On the second day, a bomb exploded right near us, in an area we’d left just five minutes before. It was really close.”

The friends had to wait three days before they could get inside the airport, let alone board a plane for their ultimate destination: the United States. 

A little over a year later, Zahra, Arifa and Hadisa are now full-time students at Arizona State University (ASU), their days packed with activities and studying. While most refugees resettle in homes and residential communities, these women are rebuilding their lives on campus, as part of a co-sponsorship program between the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Arizona and ASU.

Here, Arifa, Zahra, and Hadisa share their experiences fleeing Afghanistan, starting over in the U.S., and planning for their futures.

Arifa, Zahra and Hadisa sit together looking at a phone held by Zahra
Arifa (L) Zahra (C) and Hadisa (R) sit together at their new campus at Arizona State University.
Photo: Nisha Datt for the IRC

Leaving Afghanistan 

Arifa, Zahra, and Hadisa met when all three attended the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Bangladesh, which provides scholarships for Afghan students. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the girls returned home to Kabul to attend school remotely. They feared for their futures when the government changed hands. 

“Before, we had a normal life. [Afghan] society is a traditional society but this is totally different,” says Zahra of the restrictions women face under the new government. “It’s not even our own culture. I don't know why they put this on us.” 

It was AUW that eventually helped the girls to leave the country, assisting 170 Afghan students seeking safety in the U.S. The three friends were among 67 who came to Arizona.

Arifa and Hadisa stand next to one another with their skateboards.
Arifa and Hadisa with their skateboards in Arizona.
Photo: Nisha Datt for the IRC

Arriving in the U.S.

Upon arrival, the IRC helped Arifa, Zahra, and Hadisa acclimate to their new surroundings and access basic necessities.

“It was very difficult,” Zahra says. “We left our homeland and our families.”

“We weren’t allowed to bring anything,” recalls Arifa. “We didn’t even have clothes to wear. So they brought in clothes for us, food, everything. It meant a lot to us.”

The IRC also connected the women with an Afghan case worker who spoke their language.

“She helped us to talk about what we feel, which is important for us,” says Arifa. 

Through the co-sponsorship program with the IRC, ASU provided housing, meals, scholarships, and additional support, enabling the women to continue their education.

Once the women settled in Arizona, they began to get used to their new home.

“What I was shocked about in the US is that you need an appointment for everything—even seeing your friends!” Hadisa says, laughing. “And when you go to the doctor, you have to wait two or three days and sometimes you get healthy by the time you go.”

“It surprised me how big the ASU campus was,” says Zahra. “I find my classes with Google Maps and still I get lost sometimes.” 

Despite such readjustments, all three young women are optimistic about their futures in the U.S. 

“Here, there's lots of opportunity for women,” Zahra says. “As a woman, you can achieve all your dreams here.”

Goals for the future

Arifa, Hadisa and Zahra are currently taking English classes as part of ASU’s Global Launch program. They will join regular ASU classes in the spring of 2023. 

Zahra plans to study law to support her family and to help women and girls in Afghanistan. 

“At least I have this opportunity and am somewhere I can raise my voice,” she says. “But girls in Afghanistan don’t.”

Arifa throws a punch while practicing taekwando
Arifa, 18, loves practicing taekwando and is looking forward to sharing her passion for the sport with fellow ASU students.
Photo: Nisha Datt for the IRC

Arifa looks forward to studying cybersecurity, also with the goal of supporting her family, and helping her country. She hopes to continue practicing martial arts, which she has been studying for six years. She has earned her black belt in taekwondo and has competed in several competitions, including the Asian Olympic Games in Turkmenistan.

“If someone says “I like sports,”  it's different from someone saying “I love sports.” says Arifa. “For me, sports are my love.” Arifa has started an aikido club at ASU, and already has numerous sign up requests from her fellow students.

Hadisa plans to study software engineering and find ways to help those still struggling in Afghanistan.

“I really would like to do something for the girls of Afghanistan, especially for those who have lost their parents or don't have someone to support them,” she says. “I’m going to bring change to the next generation of Afghanistan.”

Hadisa, too, wants to help her family back in Afghanistan, especially as they supported her journey to the U.S.

“I want to return the goodness that they gave me—my mom, dad, brothers, sisters,” she says. “I’m really thankful that they allowed me to get to this place in my life.”

Arifa, Zahra and Hadisa sit together in a circle in the middle of a library. They smile while reading together,
Arifa, Zahra and Hadisa study together in the ASU library.
Photo: Nisha Datt for the IRC

Hopes for Afghanistan

The students are in agreement that they want to dispel stereotypes about Afghanistan. 

“It hurts me when people say ‘I’m sorry that you are from that country,’” says Hadisa. 

“We face many challenges,” adds Arifa, “but we still try our best. We are stronger and more knowledgeable than the world thinks.”

They also look forward to the day when the ongoing conflict finally ends.

“I hope that one day my country will be at peace and that no one will be scared of going to Afghanistan,” Hadisa says. “I hope everyone will be living in peace without risks affecting their life…that they live in unity, happily, with each other.”

“This is my hope: to see my people happy, because we don't deserve this,” adds Zahra. “Myself and my mom grew up with war, and my grandparents, too. After 40 years of war, we deserve to be happy. We want peace."

Zahra in the ASU library
Zahra in the ASU library.
Photo: Nisha Datt for the IRC

How you can help

The IRC has 28 offices across the country, where we welcome Afghans, Ukrainians and other refugees as they rebuild their lives in the U.S. Here’s how you can support: