A young Afghan computer scientist builds her new life

When 25-year-old Sofia* fled Afghanistan in August 2021, she had a bachelor’s degree in computer science and dreamed of building websites that bring people together. With the support of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), she was able to restart her life in the United States, where she hopes to rebuild her career as a computer programmer.

Sofia discovered computers when she was in 11th grade. She says the discipline “helps introduce people to the world and show them what’s going on.”

Photo: Andrew Oberstadt for IRC

The United States has welcomed more than 74,000 Afghan refugees since the change of power in August 2021. Many of these refugees have been forced to flee the only homes they have ever known.

The IRC has supported Afghans like Sofia across the country, hosting them in US government-run “safe havens” where they receive temporary accommodation, food and medical care. When they leave the Safe Havens, the IRC helps many find housing, jobs, healthcare and other essentials.

Here is Sofia’s story.

How did you get interested in computing?

I was in grade 11 when a classmate of mine told me about a course on Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Most of us didn’t have access to computers at that time, but we were determined to take the course.

After graduating from high school, I decided to continue my studies in this field because I had become very attached to it. I was interested in creating websites that others could learn from and use freely.

How was your university experience in Afghanistan?

The first two years I was in a government college and then I studied in a private university for two years. My male classmates in Afghanistan confronted me many times, saying that IT was not a profession for women and that I should opt for a profession “designed” for women. I was bullied and discriminated against. They weren’t ready to count me in their group.

With all these difficulties, I did not give in. I did not lose hope and wanted to move on. I then transferred to a private university, where half of the students were women.

I did not give in. I did not lose hope and wanted to move on.

There are various barriers to women’s education in Afghanistan, including lack of family and community support, remote schools and lack of female teachers. Personally, I had the support of my family but I did not have the support of society in general.

A young woman stands in a doorway holding a laptop computer.

“I want to be a person who can help others,” Sofia said. “I want to find ways to help those who don’t understand or have access to technology.”

Photo: Andrew Oberstadt for IRC

How did you evacuate Afghanistan?

In August 2021, the situation suddenly became very chaotic. Everyone panicked and feared for their lives.

In the last days I was leaving, everything was disastrous and people were extremely anxious because they were trying to leave. I also feared that the situation would get even worse. Nobody knew what was going to happen to them.

When I arrived at the airport, I couldn’t believe so many people had already come. I thought I might not be able to get into the airport, but after many struggles I was able to catch a flight.

My brother and I were able to leave but our mother, who has arthritis, couldn’t make it to the airport in time. She now lives in Kabul on her own, with no one to help her with her medical needs.

How was your experience in the United States?

We arrived in the United States on September 6. My goal was to come here and have a life. I think 80% of the girls who are in Kabul want the same thing. They want freedom, freedom of thought, freedom of education. Their wish is to achieve what they dream of.

The IRC has always, from my point of view, helped everyone. When I arrived here I was treated very well and any questions I had were answered. For example, they introduced us to several organizations that helped us with basic necessities. They also helped us move near family members. I wish the IRC even more success in helping the Afghans. I really thank them because what they do is very important to us.

Two young women are sitting across from each other at a desk.

The IRC supports Afghans like Sofia across the country.

Photo: Andrew Oberstadt for IRC

When I got here, I thought, “I got everything I wanted and now I can overcome all the problems. It was a strange feeling to know that I can achieve everything I set out to do.

What are your career goals and dreams?

I want to be a person who can help others. I really like working in networks and IT. I want to find ways to help those who don’t understand or have access to technology.

I also want to create a website like Google, Facebook and Instagram because these apps bring everyone together. Computing helps introduce people to the world and show them what’s going on.

I want to build a website like Google, Facebook and Instagram because these apps bring everyone together.

I am very determined to achieve my goals. I want to settle in the United States and hopefully sponsor my mother to come here.

What are your hopes for Afghanistan?

I have always wished for peace to be established in my country and for girls like me to fulfill all their wishes and dreams. I do not want my country and its people to back down.

There are thousands of girls in Kabul like me who want to study, continue their education, work in the field of their choice, be active in society and help their fellow Afghans.

My personal dream is to help the Afghan people so that they can have a better life. If I ever meet a girl who is in Kabul and is very interested in IT, I will tell her never to lose hope and never give up on her dreams. There will be a day when everything will be fine and she will continue her education.

A young woman, with her back to the camera, sits at a desk and types on her laptop.

“My personal dream is to help the Afghan people so that they can have a better life,” Sofia told IRC.

Photo: Andrew Oberstadt for IRC

What do you want the United States to know about Afghan refugees?

My message to the people of the United States is to support the Afghans who came here because they were in terrible shape when they left their country. Everything is new for them since they arrived at a very different place. And I thank the Americans for helping us so far.

*Pseudonym used for security

How you can help Afghan refugees

The IRC works in 25 cities across the country to welcome Afghans, Ukrainians and other refugees as they rebuild their lives in the United States. Here’s how you can support:

Donate by signing up for a monthly gift which will be used where it is most needed.

Find out how you can support a local IRC office near you.

Volunteer in a local or remote office. Opportunities include preparing new homes for refugee families, mentoring someone as they restart their career, and tutoring students.

Sponsor an Afghan family. Established organizations, such as businesses, college communities, faith groups, sports teams, or local clubs can become Afghan Placement and Assistance (APA) community partners to help families get back on their feet.

Rent to a refugee. If you’re a landlord, find out how you can rent to a refugee.

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