An extraordinary graduate from Swansea University is embarking on the next chapter of her life two years after being forced to leave her home country of Afghanistan to escape the Taliban.
With only the few belongings she could carry, including her mother’s scarf, her sister’s earrings and a book from her friend, Dr Elham Barakzai boarded one of the final planes departing Kabul in August 2021.
“On August 15th, I woke up with a heavy heart, worried about Kabul's situation and hoping that the government and NATO would take action. My best friend called me that morning to say the Taliban had reached Kabul, and they were leaving the country,” explained Elham.
“The situation was chaotic, with people rushing to the airport and banks. By the afternoon, my friend was calling me to confirm that Ashraf Ghani, the former Afghanistan President, had fled, and the Taliban had taken control of the capital.”
Amidst the turmoil caused by the Taliban's takeover, Elham, a Chevening Scholar, was evacuated by the UK Embassy after concern rose over her work campaigning for women's rights.
Elham was forced to make the difficult decision to leave her family, who were unable to join her as they were not immediate dependents.
“I arrived in London feeling like my life had changed completely. I was now a migrant with no home and family in my country,” said 30-year-old Elham, who lives in London.
In September, Elham arrived in Swansea to study for a master’s in public health and health promotion, marking a stark transition into an entirely new environment.
While adjusting to everyday life in Wales and maintaining a demanding academic schedule, Elham also had the added stress of navigating the challenging asylum seeker system.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I was worried about my family’s lives and finances, I had to learn a whole new study system, and I was also not sure about my refugee status,” said Elham.
“The University and I tried to contact the Home Office, but we heard nothing; then, thanks to the help of a friend, 11 months after I came to the UK, I was issued indefinite leave to remain.”
Despite the hard times she faced, Elham's tenacity shone through, propelling her forward with unwavering determination, something she says was aided by the support she received at Swansea University.
“The help I received from my classmates, professors and professional staff at the University was incredible, particularly my academic mentor Dr Sophia Komnionou, the International Development Office and Money@CampusLife teams,” said Elham.
“They helped me do everything from finding accommodation and applying for the University’s Hardship Fund to checking on my general health.”
Dr Komninou, Lecturer in Public Health Nutrition, said: "I am personally very proud of how far Elham has gone. Her resilience through the past two years has inspired me as an individual, and I know it will do the same for many others."
Elham's graduation from Swansea last month marked a significant milestone in her personal and professional journey.
“Currently, I am doing administration work whilst studying for the Professional and Linguistic Assessments Board test, as I would like to become a GP,” said Elham.
“Studying in the UK and being a Chevening Scholar was one of my biggest dreams, and two years ago, I thought it would no longer be possible. I feel extremely proud and lucky to have had this opportunity, I just hope all the girls in my country have the chance to do the same one day.”
Elham would like to one day be able to return to her home country and use her accomplishments from her time in Wales and the UK to bring positive changes to Afghanistan, until then, she holds another dream close to her heart.
“I want the chance to live with my family again and take them to the beautiful places in Swansea where I’ve been able to experience some peace.”