Sharif Safi is many things – Afghan, activist, masters student, international student ambassador and Chevening scholar. He anticipated hard work and dedication – two concepts he has never been afraid of – but never imagined that his route to international education would be as painful as it was. He spoke to The PIE about fleeing his beloved home country after it was taken over by the Taliban regime, his experience of UK education and his tips for future international scholars.
The PIE: What were you doing in Afghanistan before coming to the UK?
Sharif Safi: I was leading my non-profit organisation, Mastoorar, before coming to the UK to pursue my masters in Peace, Conflict and Diplomacy. We worked for peace-building, women, art and youth.
I wrote about the Afghan peace process, women rights, liberties, democracy and youth inclusion. I founded the Kabul Peace Forum, through which we highlighted the voices of Afghan women, war victims, media activists and minorities. We advocated for preserving the rights of women, individual liberties and freedom of media if any potential peace agreement with the Taliban was to be reached.
Before establishing my own organisation, I managed arguably one of the largest youth-focused projects in Kabul for almost three years, from the US embassy. I had worked closely with several other foreign embassies in Afghanistan, the NATO Senior Civilian Representative Office, United Nations agencies and international donor organisations.
The core concept of my work along with my team during my career in Afghanistan has been to create and advocate for an environment where differences are appreciated, women’s rights are respected and individual liberties are acknowledged.
The PIE: Is it true that the Taliban targeted you because of your activism?
SS: My work with foreign embassies coupled with my activism and interviews with media, in which I would openly challenge the narrative and ideology of Taliban, didn’t please them and I received threatening messages from the group over social media telling me to stop promoting western values. I believe that some values, such as the right to vote, freedom of expression, women’s right to work, to be educated and to be included in political arenas are not just western values. They are basic human rights and shouldn’t be tied to west or east. They should be respected, everywhere.
I have survived two close calls. However, I wasn’t the main target. I was unlucky enough to see explosions happening in front of me which were plotted by the Taliban and saw people thrown everywhere in blood and dust but lucky enough to not be close enough to get physically hurt.
The PIE: How did you leave Afghanistan?
SS: By early May 2021, I received the final result about my Chevening scholarship application. That was a moment of joy and excitement. At that moment, I knew that I was supposed to travel to the UK in August that year to start my Chevening journey. However, little I did I know that the timing would be so unfortunate.
“By the time I arrived in London, my feelings of excitement were completely overshadowed by the distress and trauma”
On August 15 2021, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban and the group entered Kabul – Afghanistan’s capital. It was when the international forces as well as foreign embassies were evacuating their soldiers, staff and their Afghan allies from Kabul airport. I spent almost 10 days in the country after the Taliban took over as I was waiting to depart to the UK for my studies. That was a terrible experience. I won’t go through the details of how I left Afghanistan not only because I don’t like to remind myself of the tragic scenes that I had to see but also because this article wouldn’t accommodate the length of the story. Those memories will remain with me for the rest of my life – the desperation in the eyes of ordinary Afghans, the barbarism of the Taliban and the anguish over loss of everything that we had worked for. I left Afghanistan with a backpack. I was heartbroken, with tears in my eyes and a deep sorrow which I still carry in my heart. The painful feeling of what was lost and what was new in Afghanistan. The throbbing feeling of leaving my friends and loved ones back home.
I left Afghanistan to France, and from there I came to London and began my studies at London Metropolitan University.
The PIE: I can imagine it was a real mix of emotions, leaving your home country, but following your dreams of international education, how did you feel at this time?
SS: By the time I arrived in London, my feelings of excitement were completely overshadowed by the distress and trauma. I felt more sorrowed than excited for my Chevening journey. It would be a lie to say that I don’t think about and mourn for all the good things which are now lost in Afghanistan. It wasn’t the journey I expected. Honestly, it has been extremely difficult these past months dealing with all the distress while doing a one-year master’s which is challenging even under normal circumstances. I am glad that I have been fairly successful in it, however difficult it has been. I am happy that I am getting a world-class education, yet I am deeply worried as I follow the developments in Afghanistan.
“I am happy that I am getting a world-class education, yet I am deeply worried as I follow the developments in Afghanistan”
The PIE: We heard you speak at The PIE Live about your affinity with the UK international education sector. Is there anything you think can be improved upon for international students?
SS: I chose to come to the UK to pursue my education while having offers to live and study in the US and France. Both countries generously offered me asylum and the opportunity to study. I am genuinely grateful to both countries but I couldn’t give up on my Chevening scholarship. I couldn’t give up on the world-class education in the UK that I worked so hard for.
While I believe that the education sector in the UK is one of the best in the world, I think that some areas can be improved upon such as employability for international students and the easing of immigration routes and visa processes so that the experience of international students can advance.
The PIE: The Chevening scholarship is known for being competitive. Were you accepted on your first application?
SS: I was. However, some students make it in their second, third, fourth or even fifth attempts which shows their perseverance and dedication for getting a quality education. It’s very common to make frequent attempts for the Chevening scholarship given the prestige, benefits, network and opportunities that this scholarship provides. I wouldn’t say I was lucky to get accepted in my first attempt, because that would be undermining the highly competitive reality of the application process as well as years of hard work which I put in to prepare myself. I don’t believe in luck when it becomes to success. Only dedication, discipline and perseverance can bring success.
The PIE: What would you say to someone, in a similar position, considering applying for a similar scholarship?
SS: Do not hesitate, start preparing yourself now. Adapt discipline in your life, plan for success but be prepared for failure because it’s from our failures that we learn the most. Do not be disappointed if you don’t make it in your first attempts. Learn from it, move on and try again because at the end of day, all your hard work will pay off. Stop believing in luck and miracles when it comes to success, start believing in yourself and your abilities. When writing your applications, be real. Be clear. Be yourself.