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The Impossible Achievements of Afghan Students in Iran

June 4, 2018
Shima Shahrabi
7 min read
The Impossible Achievements of Afghan Students in Iran

Afghan refugees and their children face severe prejudice when pursuing further education in Iran — even if they have lived in the country for many years, and even if their children are Iranian-born. 

When Afghans residents pass the tough, competitive entrance exams to Iran's state-run universities, they are required to pay tuition for these universities — unlike Iranian students. In addition, they are only allowed to study certain fields and disciplines, and only in certain cities. While they are attending college, they are granted a special student passport, but when they complete their studies they must return to Afghanistan, and this includes people born in Iran.

Despite these huge obstacles, in recent years a number of Afghans have achieved top ranks in entrance exams,  sparking public interest in their ongoing plight. This year, three Afghan students ranked top in entrance exams for Master’s degrees: Zeinab Hosseini, studying geology at Kharazmi University in Tehran, Morteza Shafahi, studying international relations at Hakim Sabzevari University in the province of Razavi Khorasan, and Azizollah Movahedi, studying history at Ferdowsi University in Mashhad.

In 2017, when an Afghan student who achieved the top grade in the entrance exams for a Master’s degree in geology decided not to enroll for the course, it hit the headlines. According to the rules of the Ministry of Science, which is in charge of running Iranian universities, Mehdi Jafari, a graduate from Mashhad’s Payam Noor University, would have been required to pay up to 80 percent of the tuition fee in order to continue his education — an amount of around 2.5 million tomans, or close to $600 per semester. He said he had taken the decision not to pursue his studies because he could not afford it.

A Few Exceptions 

Jafari became a cause célèbre, and soon after, the science ministry’s director general of Foreign Student’s Affairs announced that Jafari and a number of other Afghan students had enrolled in universities without having to pay tuition fees. It is likely that this year, too, students achieving the top 10 or the top 100 places in entrance exams for various fields and degrees will be exempt from paying tuition. But, as one student asked, how many Afghan students can manage to come out in the top 10 or the top 100 positions in highly competitive and difficult Iranian university entrance exams?

Foroozan is a chemistry student at the state-run Tehran University, one of the most sought-after institutes of higher education in Iran. Unlike his Iranian schoolmates who pay no tuition, he has to pay more than 1.5 million tomans, close to $360, each semester. He has a job at a leather bag workshop and sometimes has to work overnight sewing bags to pay for his education. And he says his tuition fees are actually lower than for students studying in other fields. “Those who are accepted to study medicine often have to give it up because they cannot afford the tuition,” he says.

In 2014, it was the first time the University Entrance Exams Guidebook contained a table detailing tuition in the fields of medicine, dentistry and pharmacology, including tuition for non-Iranian students, as set by the Ministry of Health and Medical Education. According to this table, non-Iranian students have to pay an annual tuition of 17 million tomans, more than $4,000, when studying medicine and pharmacology and 18 million tomans, a little less than $4,300, to study dentistry.

“Blood” Not “Soil”

Esmael Mohammadi, a medical student at Kerman Medical School in southeastern Iran, told the website Our Afghanistan that he had done everything he could to qualify for a discounted tuition, approaching everyone he could think of, from the university itself and the Students’ Affairs Office at the Afghan Embassy to even the Supreme Leader’s representative at the school — and yet he got nowhere. In the nationwide entrance exam for applied sciences, Mohammadi passed with a ranking of 330th.

“I went to the Supreme Leader’s representative,” he said. “I said that I had passed the entrance exam in the top ranks and I had a grade point average of A. I explained the tuition issue and told him: ‘My father immigrated to Iran 40 years ago. I was born in Iran and have lived and studied here prior to getting into university.’ But he told me that there is no ‘soil law’ but [instead only] a ‘blood law.’ He said: ‘We consider anybody who is from Iranian blood to be an Iranian. Otherwise that person is a foreigner even if he has lived in Iran for 100 years. We cannot do anything for you because you are a foreigner. You must go to your own government to get help.'”

Foroozan says he knows many Afghan students who gave up going to school or to college because they could not afford it. “Going to university is not our only problem,” he says. “Even going to [primary and secondary] schools is difficult. Until I received my residency permit I had to study at autonomous schools.”

“Autonomous” or “self-financed” schools are schools set up by Afghan refugees themselves because the children of undocumented immigrants were not allowed to enroll in regular schools. The teachers at this school are not employed by the Ministry of Education, although some were teachers in Afghanistan before they had to leave their country behind. Foroozan studied at such a school until he finished the fifth grade. But then his family received residency permits and he was able to go to a state-run middle school. First they tested him to decide which grade he qualified to be in, and then they enrolled him at the first year of the middle school. “But every year until the third year that I was there, the principal made it difficult for me to register and asked for this or that document, until 2015, when Ayatollah Khamenei ordered the schools to register Afghan children.”

In that 2015 directive, the Supreme Leader said: “No Afghan children in Iran, even illegal and undocumented immigrants, can be denied education. They must be registered at Iranian schools.”

This meant the situation improved somewhat for Afghan children. “Afterward, it became a lot easier for Afghan children to go to school,” says Foroozan. “But there are still cities where people do not like to see Afghans in their schools.” He said some parents object to Afghan children attending the same school as their children.

Forbidden Cities

Foroozan also points out that Afghans are still not allowed to go to school in certain cities. Every year, he says, the University Entrance Exams Guidebook produced by the Science Ministry’s National Testing Organization publishes a list of places where alien citizens cannot study. “In 2016, when I took the entrance exams, a number of cities in 14 provinces were closed to Afghans. For example, I remember that we could not live and go to school in most cities in Isfahan province. The same was true for all cities in the provinces of East and West Azerbaijan.”

Afghan students are also banned from studying in fields that require the government to offer them job opportunities. The long list of banned subjects includes nuclear physics, molecular physics, particle physics, plasma science and technology, aircraft safety engineering, aircraft maintenance engineering, aviation engineering, military-related fields, aviation electronics, aviation communication, and computer technology.

Afghan students face another problem — the so-called student passport. “When we are enrolled at the university our residency permits are voided,” says Foroozan. “We are given student passports but they are not renewed when we graduate and we must leave Iran. We have no option but to go to Afghanistan, even though many of us have grown up in Iran and we have never seen Afghanistan. The three that passed the entrance exam with the very top grades must also leave Iran when they finish their studies, like my friend Ebrahim, who got his Master’s degree in mathematics but then had to go to Afghanistan. But he did not last long in Afghanistan and sneaked back into Iran. Now he works as a janitor.”


More on the plight of Afghan refugees in Iran:

Iran’s Afghan Allies Demand Recognition, January 11, 2018

The Afghan Schools Run by Afghan Refugees, December 20, 2017

Caught up in Clashes: Iran’s Afghan “Green Movement” Prisoners, April 21, 2016

Afghan Workers are Scapegoats For Iran’s Poor Economy, May 20, 2015

Afghan Children Denied Education, June 25, 2015

The Never Ending Saga of Iranians and Racism, October 16, 2015

Against the Odds? Maryam Monsef and the Canadian Dream, November 11, 2015

Afghan Media Visit Schools for Refugees in Tehran, January 2015



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