Bard Refugee Students: An Ambitious Program, A Perilous Journey


Did you go away to college, landing in a new climate, a new culture, speaking a new language? Probably not. Most of us found the first step into adulthood, away from our parents, challenging enough without that daunting scenario. Bard has accepted hundreds of students who are refugees displaced by war or military occupation. Most recently, it committed to accepting 100 students from Afghanistan, but its history of generosity to refugees goes back many decades.

Afghan Students at Bard

I recently sat down with Jennifer Murray, Bard’s Dean of International Studies, to learn more about the program for Afghan students and Bard’s broader commitment to refugee students. We all know about Bard’s pledge to help 100 Afghan students to complete their studies. But what does that really involve? Bard’s total undergraduate enrollment is less than 2,000, and the college is almost 7,000 miles from Kabul, Afghanistan, so this is an ambitious project. It has been possible with the support of OSUN (Open Society University Network).

What do They Face as Refugees?

The Afghan students had the advantage of already studying in English at the American University of Afghanistan or American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan, but they still face the trauma of displacement, immersion in a new culture, the challenge of navigating our opaque immigration and asylum system, and the need to help support their families.

The students have arrived in groups beginning in the fall semester of 2021, with new students arriving each semester. Some came with their families who have been resettled in the US, but many had a more harrowing trip. Although Bard had planned in advance to evacuate students from Kabul, they were unable to get permission from US officials to enter the airport. When Kabul fell, all the students were left behind. Instead, Bard, with OSUN’s help, negotiated with Pakistan to allow the students to transit through Pakistan to Kyrgyzstan, and arranged ground transport and security to the Pakistani border. It took 10 scary trips to get 114 students out.

Some Personal Notes

“I cannot describe how it feels to leave your homeland and family behind. I started to think I was very selfish when I left my loved ones when I know they were in danger, but I had to leave them because I knew if I stayed I couldn’t do anything for them or myself.” — Meen Nickyar, 21 years old

“I was in total shock. I was not ready to leave my family, friends, people, and country to save my life and pursue my education and career. My family wanted me to go safely, but they hardly controlled their emotions. These moments were the most challenging moments of my life.” — Habibullah Sahak, 21 years old

How it Works

Bard is able to give the students full tuition, room and board scholarships, and, depending on their immigration status, offer some on-campus work opportunities. The college has also found some pro bono attorneys to provide assistance in asylum filings.

The hardest challenge for the students is the separation from their families. The students whose families have not been resettled in the US need places to go for holidays, academic breaks, and the summer. The Lexington Refugee Assistance Project in Massachusetts has provided some host families. And students are allowed to stay in the Bard dorms if they have no alternative. Dean Murray said offers to host international students would be welcome.

Laszlo Z. Bitó

Bard's History as a Home for Refugee Students

At the end of 1956, the time of the Hungarian Revolution, Bard ran a Language and Orientation program for more than 300 Hungarian freedom fighters who were forced to flee Hungary. Among them was Laszlo Z. Bitó, for whom the Bard Conservatory building is named, who stayed on to graduate from Bard in 1960. (To understand the magnitude of that effort, Bard’s graduating class in 1957 was 41!)

In the wake of the US attack on Iraq, several Iraqi students were given Bard scholarships. One of them was supported by a community group in Rhinebeck and has gone on to become a research scientist in genetics. Now Bard has announced it will be offering scholarships to 60 Ukrainian students.

To learn more or to contribute to the program, click here.