It was the worst case of bad timing.

Aftikhar Mominzada was elated after graduating from the Aga Khan Academy in Hyderabad, India, in the spring of 2021. When he started the academy’s international baccalaureate program in middle school, it was the opportunity of a lifetime, freeing him from the parochial religious education he was likely to receive in Kabul.

The plan was to begin a new chapter at the University of Alberta on a full 2022 Aga Khan Global IB Citizenship Scholarship, after a summer off with family back home.

That’s when his country descended into chaos. The Taliban was rapidly taking control of Afghanistan, and Mominzada was trapped.

“The flights were shut off, and I was not able to get out,” he said. “It was a traumatic situation, very difficult to handle emotionally. You grow up in a different country with a Western education – with people from all over the world – then you come home and everything collapses. You become hopeless.”

Adding to Mominzada’s anxiety was uncertainty over who, exactly, was processing his visa application, because jurisdiction over his file had shifted from India to Abu Dhabi when his Indian student visa expired. In the confusion, Mominzada’s visa request was rejected by the United Arab Emirates’ Canadian embassy.

In late August, with the Taliban’s takeover almost complete, he called Khadija Jetha, the U of A’s international recruitment co-ordinator for the Middle East and Africa.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been able to get in touch, ma’am,” he said. “We don’t have internet.”

Since his family lived in a compound with former government officials, the Taliban had taken over houses on both sides of his own, he told her. He was basically sitting in the dark, unable to venture outside.

Aftikhar Mominzada

Playing a leadership role: Aftikhar Mominzada with the guitar he was given by U of A international recruitment co-ordinator Khadija Jetha when he arrived in Canada (Photo: Geoff McMaster)

Jetha got busy working the phones, sorting through Mominzada’s visa application with officials in New Delhi and Abu Dhabi, even enlisting U of A president Bill Flanagan to write a letter of support.

She eventually found a contact she knew in Abu Dhabi who cleared up the matter within 48 hours.

But it took another eight weeks to process the visa, and Mominzada still needed to escape Afghanistan. With help from the Aga Khan Development Network and Focus Humanitarian Assistance, he managed to get on a flight into Islamabad, Pakistan, then stayed with a host family in Rawalpindi while he waited for his study permit. He finally caught a flight to Canada via Qatar in early December.

It’s not the sort of high drama the U of A’s recruitment officers routinely deal with. But Mominzada was an unusually courageous, highly talented and socially dedicated student who needed someone in his corner, said Jetha.

In his years at the Aga Khan Academy he maintained an average in the high 90s, forgoing other opportunities during the summer to give back to people in need.

While some of his classmates accepted internship positions in places like Paris, he taught English and coding to students in underserved areas of Hyderabad, and helped teach English and humanities to underprivileged children in elementary and middle school.

He was also a competitive swimmer and jazz musician, playing guitar and saxophone.

What impressed Jetha most, however, was that Mominzada wanted eventually to return to Afghanistan with his U of A education, using it to improve conditions there.

“My education at the Aga Khan Academy changed the way I saw everything, because there was a lot of analysis and critical thinking, which is totally non-existent in education in Afghanistan,” he said.

“It was very much focused on ethical leadership, and I learned a shared sense of responsibility that comes with that education.” The Aga Khan scholarship at the U of A “obliges me on an ethical level to go back to my country and serve for the development of my country.”

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Having finally landed at the U of A, Mominzada is eager to take courses in economics and business to one day help rebuild his country “on an entrepreneurial level.”

“I picked him up at the airport wearing my Bears jersey and holding a little stuffed bear, which he immediately recognized,” Jetha recalled.

“He only had a duffel bag of belongings, so the local Ismaili community arranged to provide living essentials and supplies, and I gave him my old guitar so he could jam while he’s here.”

Mominzada quickly made contact with the local Ismaili and Afghan communities, as well as with people from Iran and other eastern countries, he said. He’s already thinking about how to improve support systems for foreign students.

But he also acknowledges “the immense support from U of A International” in making his journey possible.

“People here were involved from the beginning until the end of my resettlement,” he said. “I’m very grateful – it made my path way easier.”

As for Jetha, she was just glad she could help an international student in need.

“Never have I encountered a situation with so many moving parts, but this is the part of my job that makes it all worthwhile.”

| By Geoff McMaster

Geoff is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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