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SAKINA

Afghanistan refugee maintains hope despite turbulent 12 months

Note: Sakina’s last name has been omitted out of respect for her safety.

Courage is a characteristic that speaks through actions. 

Sakina, a 2021 graduate of St. Cloud State University, has displayed it throughout her entire life. 

It took courage to attend university in her home country of Afghanistan, a path often not supported for women. 

Courage to move thousands of miles away to earn a master’s degree at St. Cloud State and return home to use her new skills to better her country. 

And it also took courage to flee when her safety was no longer guaranteed. 

Aug. 15, 2021, was the day her life suddenly became unsafe. Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul was captured by the Taliban. Her country’s government had officially collapsed. 

“I’ll never forget that in my whole life, because that was one of the two worst days in my life,” Sakina said. “The second worst day in my life was Aug. 21, 2022, (when) I had to leave my country. Now I’m out of my country and I don’t know if and when I’ll be able to go back.”

 

Finding her way

Sakina first came to America in August of 2019, attending SCSU to earn a master’s degree in psychology. She had earlier received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and educational sciences from Kabul University in Afghanistan, working in multiple roles in psychology and later finance and human resources.

I (wanted) to learn how to use psychology in an organization, because I was able to see government and non-government organizations’ troubles and issues,” Sakina said from her work experience. “I started looking for programs abroad, and we have the Fulbright program, which is a cultural exchange program between governments.” 

Sakina received the Fulbright scholarship in addition to the P.E.O. International Peace Scholarship, which provides scholarships for international women students to pursue graduate studies in the U.S. or Canada. 

These scholarships, along with Sakina’s work experience, passion for learning and desire for high-quality education, compelled her to start in industrial-organizational psychology at SCSU. 

“I had a really nice time at SCSU; I enjoyed the program a lot,” she said. “I was learning what I was looking forward to. Because I had experience, I could connect the learning with what I used to do … (the professors) were really generous in helping me learn more and more.” 

During her time at SCSU, Sakina also became involved in MPPAW (Minnesota Professionals for Psychology Applied to Work). SCSU has been an active participant in MPPAW, sending a large number of students through the annual program. 

Dr. John Fennig, founder of DRI Consulting, spoke virtually at an MPPAW meeting in 2020 and would later go on to serve as the organization’s president. When Sakina signed up for the mentorship program, they were paired up. She described him as “amazing”, helping guide her through the process of looking for work post-master’s degree. 

“She has a profound desire to serve; she’s very poised,” Fennig said in describing Sakina. “(She) has very high emotional intelligence. Hats off to any international student learning and performing in a second language … I really admire that.” 

Compelled to return back to Afghanistan, Sakina was pleased with the preparation she received in her two-year stint in the United States. 

“SCSU and the program and my professional community in St. Cloud helped me to achieve (my) goal,” she said. “I was feeling so good after graduation. Now I’m going to go back home with all I’d learned so far, and I had all these plans and hopes to give back to my home country.” 

Despite never getting to meet in person before her graduation in May 2021, Sakina and Fennig had already created a strong bond. But there was no way to predict how deep that bond would grow over the following year.

 

Feeling left behind

Sakina joined the International Assistance Mission (IAM) upon her return to Afghanistan, taking the role of national human resources manager. IAM is the oldest non-governmental organization in the country, and her position was responsible for leading HR across all of Afghanistan. 

“It was challenging and a big position; but the organization gave me flexibility, authority and responsibility to make changes as needed. Everything was going well for 2.5 months.” 

But then the government collapsed. 

And Sakina’s world turned upside down. 

“It wasn’t just about staying home and not being able to go to work as a woman, it was about life threat,” she said. “I belong to a minority called Hazaras, and we are the most hated group by the Taliban. When they took the government, we thought this was the end of life for us.” 

Sakina being a woman who had studied in the United States and earned an education put her life at greater risk than the average citizen. 

“It was a very, very difficult time,” she said. “Words cannot describe how difficult that time was. We were feeling left behind. All of these allies and the countries that have been helping us (for) 20 years have just left us, and all our neighbors closed their borders to us.” 

“She courageously showed up at anti-Taliban rallies; I was scared for her, but she wanted to have a voice,” her mentor John Fennig said. “She did heroic stuff in her organization as head of HR.” 

Where do people go when there’s big problems? Human Resources. 

This forced Sakina to summon an incredible strength within herself. With young nieces terrified, she said she would comfort them and pretend everything was okay. 

Whether at work or at home, Afghanistan’s difficulties were always front of mind. 

“I didn’t have enough time to analyze my feelings and my thoughts,” she said. “I needed to be available for my family, I needed to be available for my colleagues; at the same time, I had this life threat. I was afraid of putting my family at risk because of my work experience and education in the U.S.” 

She was losing her faith in humanity, and her hope was starting to fade. 

But she hadn’t been left behind. 

Sakina still had a group of allies in the U.S. ready to do whatever it took to get her to safety.

 

Life-changing call

It was just an average August day at the Baker National Golf Course in Medina, Minnesota for John Fennig. But then his phone rang, and he saw Sakina was calling. 

“I will never play a round of golf without thinking of how fortunate we are and how much privilege we have, because at that moment on the course she was telling me how her government had fallen and an enemy of the Hazara tribe is now in power,” Fennig said. “My life changed significantly in August of 2021.” 

Fennig was in contact with Sakina over the following months as she navigated the toughest time of her life. She was extremely grateful for that connection and care. 

“He has a great heart; he provided financial, professional, emotional support,” Sakina said. “John’s support was lifesaving at that time … I could share my emotions and fears. He was giving me hope and praying to help me feel strong.” 

The decision to leave her country was difficult, but she eventually left for Pakistan to apply for a visa to return to the United States. PEO, a philanthropic organization of women who support women’s education, started a fundraiser for Sakina. To come to the U.S. as an international student, showing financial support is essential. 

John and his company DRIC, former professors, classmates and friends in St. Cloud all contributed to make sure Sakina had the financial proof required. The vast network of support went beyond monetary contributions. 

“They helped me while I was in Afghanistan in a time of crisis by trying to put me on an evacuation list, and then they tried to help me financially, professionally and psychologically during the year I was in Afghanistan,” Sakina said. 

And those efforts were a success. She was able to pass the application for a visa, eventually finding her way back to the United States.

 

Hope

When she arrived in Worcester, Massachusetts from Pakistan, there was a huge feeling of relief from her support network. 

“I was glad there was such a broad base of help, there was probably close to 100 people that contributed to her journey,” Fennig said. “We’re eager to help her.” 

Sakina is now earning a second master’s degree in data analytics from Clark University. She loves working with data and statistics, and she began her new program in Spring 2023. 

Since Sakina is not allowed to officially work off campus during the first year with her F-1 Visa, she’s volunteering at two different companies: DRI Consulting and International Coaching Federation. 

With DRIC she’s helping lead a project on helping clients recruit and maintain employees, while also learning from others in a professional and supportive team. 

At ICF she has the chance to get more experience in data analytics, pairing well with her current coursework at Clark. 

“Everything here has been going amazingly well so far, (but) the concern is the situation in Afghanistan is still bad and it’s getting worse,” Sakina said. “My family are still there, and every day I’m worried about their safety.” 

Not only does fear for loved ones occasionally shake her concentration; so does the uncertainty of her future. Last time she was in a master’s program, Sakina had a very clear plan for post-graduation. This time, she has no clear indication of when she can return home. 

Sakina had a good life in Afghanistan, progressing in her career and holding leadership positions. But something outside of her control shifted her future. 

“It’s like starting from zero when you go to a new country,” she said. “I’m safe, and I’m achieving my goals … but at the same time I always have these fears and stress because of my family and my country. I still have sorrow and pain in my heart. Sometimes I’m happy and laughing, but deep in my heart I’m sad. I have no country. 

“It’s very complicated, but I’m thankful for everyone who has helped me so far.” 

That thankfulness was on display during a happy hour at a national conference last year. With SCSU faculty and former classmates finally able to see Sakina safe, there were plenty of hugs and love in the room. 

“One thing which I strongly believe is we really need people. Even though (people) says there’s an individualistic culture in the U.S., in the real world it’s not like that,” Sakina said. “In that difficult time, all of those people and friends in the U.S. were the only ones I had. I’m a God believer, and I’m strongly thankful to God and all those people in the U.S. who supported me. Otherwise, I don’t know how I would’ve survived that time. Nice people and good people are the treasure we have in life.”

 People came through for Sakina when she needed them most. And that helps her keep one emotion alive: hope. 

“I have hope; I don’t know when, I don’t know after how many years, but I’m sure one day I’ll be able to go back to my country.”

 

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