(FOX 9) - Dr. Helen Delfeld was forced to return to the Minneapolis when COVID-19 closed the university she was teaching at in Bangladesh. She kept in touch with many of her students, including a group of women from Afghanistan who fled the country when the government collapsed earlier this year.
"You form a special bond with them. They’re really neat people, the women who can make it into the higher [education] opportunity," Dr. Delfeld said.
After leaving Bangladesh, she says she kept in touch with the 148 Afghan women part of a program at the university over social media. FOX 9 is not naming the university or the program out of concern for the former students turned refugee’s safety.
She said that as the United States started to pull troops out of Afghanistan in late August, her former students began to worry about their future in the country. Once the Taliban started taking over, Dr. Delfeld lost contact with the women.
"The instant the government itself fell and the Taliban took over the wisdom among people who knew stuff was do not reach out first to contact your Afghan friends." Dr. Delfeld said. "Because getting a text in English at the wrong time could be really problematic for some people."
For weeks she didn’t hear from the women. Then, in early September, she got a text from a former student informing her that they had landed at a military base in the United States.
"When Razia texted me to say that they were safe, it was just such a relief," Dr. Delfeld said. "And then suddenly we get this text that ‘we’re okay and we’re in this crazy place called Wisconsin.’"
Nearly every one of the 148 women that were in Dr. Delfeld’s program ended up as a few of the nearly 13,000 refugees being housed at Fort McCoy military base in Wisconsin.
"It’s kind of magical, isn’t it?"" Dr. Delfeld said.
Now Dr. Delfeld is trying to help the women get connected with housing, and two of the women from that program, Razia and Zahra (whose last name FOX 9 is not sharing due to safety concerns) video messaged from Fort McCoy and shared what life has been like on the base the last six weeks.
They say they aren’t allowed to share pictures from inside the base, but say there have been major improvements in communication and day-to-day operations since they first arrived at Fort McCoy on Sept. 2.
"People are happy because they have a safe place to stay," Razia said.
Razia and Zahra said as the government fell in Afghanistan and the Taliban started taking over they knew they needed to get out of the country. Because of their college education they could potentially become targets.
They said it took them five days and several tries to get onto an airplane in Kabul and leave the country. They said one day, the buses that were supposed to take them to the airport didn’t show up. Another day they sat on the bus at the gate of the airport for 36 hours waiting for an opportunity to get on an airplane.
"That night when we were around the gate, an explosion happened so we were very scared," Zahra said.
They said that on Aug. 28, they got onto a U.S. Military plane designed to carry military equipment. They said the plane didn’t have seats and was crowded, but they were grateful for the opportunity to escape the Taliban.
"We were happy that we somehow made it to the airport, but it was a mix of happiness and sadness because we didn’t know where we were heading," Razia said.
They said they traveled for days stopping in Saudi Arabia, Spain and Washington D.C. before landing in Wisconsin and were taken to Fort McCoy. They’ve been at Fort McCoy for about six weeks now and said they’re in the process of applying to leave the base. The U.S. Government will decide where they are placed, but they’re hoping to stay close by, in Minnesota, near Dr. Delfeld, the only person they know in this foreign country.
"She’s been helpful in that, and I’m really glad that we have her," Razia said.
So far, Dr. Delfeld has secured living arrangements for 25 of the women. Right now, she’s trying to find entry-level jobs that would allow the women to use their college degrees and have opportunity for advancement.
"They’re clearly capable of it, they clearly would thrive in Minnesota and we want to give them the opportunity to do so," Dr. Delfeld said.
If you’re interested in learning more about how Dr. Delfeld is helping Afghan refugees or know of career opportunities please contact her at welcome@AfghanMN.com