Ulaanbaatar hardly registers as dream destination for study-abroad scholars. But for a handful of Afghan students, all-expenses-paid undergraduate scholarships to study in Mongolia's capital city present a pragmatic alternative to life in war-torn Kabul.
In the bustling canteen of Mongolia International University (MIU), 21-year-old Nasim Sahel, an ethnic Hazara from Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Province, admits that before his arrival the only image he had of Mongolia was of people riding horses -- "and of course Genghis Khan.” Currently, Sahel and at least 22 other Hazaras study in Mongolia, most of them the recipients of scholarships specifically designed for members of the oft-persecuted minority group back home.
In Afghanistan, Hazaras are believed to be descended from Genghis Khan's marauding forces as they swept through during the Mongol conquests of the 13th century. The name “Hazara” is thought to come from the Persian “hazar,” or thousand, a reference to the hordes. Mostly Shi’a Islam believers and Asian in appearance, Hazaras have endured frequent persecution from their Sunni neighbors. The ethnically Pashtun Taliban singled out the group for mass executions and forced deportations, most notably in Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, and attacks on their settlements in highland towns like Bamiyan, the provincial capital.
In 2009, Davaabat Sainbayar, director of an online, non-profit networking initiative for Mongolians worldwide -- Tsahim Urtuu, or “Electronic Station” -- was producing a local TV series tracking Mongolians around the globe when he visited a Hazara community in Kabul. Eyewitness accounts of discrimination, "just because they were regarded as Mongols," shocked him. Three months later, with Mongolian government support, he announced the Tsahim Urtuu scholarship program. "Our goal was to help these students, who we view as ethnic Mongolians, and see where it leads," he says. (Scholarships provided to students at MIU, a private institution, are not linked to Tsahim Urtuu.)
The three students chosen for the first round underwent nine months of preparatory language lessons before enrolling in undergraduate classes at the government-run National University of Mongolia (NUM) in 2009. Despite the crash course, language is still “the biggest challenge,” says Zahra Baksh, a second-year business management student. “We often have to translate words from Mongolian into English and if we still don't get it, into Persian."
For most Hazara students, many of whom experienced life as refugees in Iran and Pakistan, their time in Mongolia offers their first taste of prolonged peace and relative stability. Meqdad Salehi, a Tsahim Urtuu scholarship awardee studying international relations at NUM, spent his entire childhood as a displaced person. He was born in Iran to Hazara refugees who had moved there hoping to escape persecution in Afghanistan. Hazaras speak a dialect of Persian. With their Shi’a beliefs, many seek sanctuary in Shi'a Iran, rather than Sunni Pakistan.
Unfortunately for Salehi and many like him, discrimination followed the Hazaras to Iran. "Tajiks and Uzbeks refugees from Afghanistan look more like Iranians. It is more difficult for Hazaras to be accepted because of our Mongolian features," said Salehi. Unable to find easy access to jobs and schooling in Iran, his family moved back to Afghanistan -- just as the Taliban gained control over much of the country in the mid-1990s. Taliban repression forced his family to return to Iran, but they found the environment so unwelcoming that they opted to return to Kabul prior to the 9/11 terrorism tragedy and the subsequent US-led blitz on Afghanistan. "The second time we came back to Afghanistan and then 9/11 happened. We heard Americans would attack so we ran to Pakistan,” Salehi said. The family has since returned to Kabul.
For Sahel, the student from Bamiyan, Mongolia is the opportunity he had always hoped for. "At least there is a country that's supporting me, a country that says, ‘Yes, you belong to me,’ after I've been exiled from Afghanistan and called a slave,” he said. An outspoken student, his hair dyed a reddish blonde, Sahel says the individual freedom he enjoys in Mongolia has been the best part of his experience. Yet he still yearns to return to a peaceful Afghanistan. "I like the idea of being descended from Mongolians, but I belong to Afghanistan."
For Hazara students in Ulaanbaatar, thoughts of home are sobering reminders of the uncertainty that loved ones continue to grapple with. "Each time I hear news of gunfire or bomb blasts in Kabul, I have to fight the urge to panic and think the worst," says Meqdad Salehi.
When asked to describe the situation at home, Zahra Bakhsh, the business management student, mulled the question for a minute. "Afghanistan is like...” she said before pausing. “I don't know how you say it in English …" After a quick Google search she finds a satisfactory way to express her sentiments: "Afghanistan is like a spell no one can break."
Pearly Jacob is a freelance journalist based in Ulaanbaatar.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.