Grapevine High Teen Was Among Afghan Foreign-Exchange Students Who Fled To Canada

Grapevine High teen was among Afghan foreign-exchange students who fled to Canada

By Domingo Ramirez Jr
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram (TX), September 14, 2009

Farishta Alyan, 17, attended Grapevine High School last year. But the foreign-exchange student was last seen by her host family on May 21 when they dropped her off at school.

She is one of several Afghan exchange students who have fled to Canada rather than return home. At least a third of the Afghan students who have come to the United States on foreign-exchange programs have sought asylum in Canada, where judges are said to be more lenient than those in the United States.

Despite the exodus, the exchange programs are continuing this school year. But the youngsters are being reminded of the repercussions: If they don t go home, they will be barred from the United States for life.

'Homeland Security is alerted when they run away, and they will be stopped if they try to come back,' department spokeswoman Darlene Kirk said. 'They will be deported.'

The students don t want to go home because of the violence there, authorities said. Some Afghan families have even encouraged their children to seek a better future.

'There s a fear of their homeland,' Kirk said. 'They may be targeted when they get back to their home.'

According to the State Department, exchange-student programs bring about 3,000 students to the United States annually, and most finish their studies and return home.

But at the end of the 2008-09 school year, 12 of the 37 Afghan students in the United States fled rather than go home, Kirk said. It s been that way for the past few years, she said.

'They are not a terrorist threat,' she said. 'Everyone who leaves, we check to be sure they are safe.'

Young Afghan refugees are a growing presence in Europe. Last year, 3,090 Afghan minors requested asylum in Austria, Britain, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Germany, according to the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Brussels. Many initially left Afghanistan for Iran and Pakistan, but moved on in search of better living conditions.

Went to class, then disappeared

Alyan attended Grapevine High School for most of 2008-09. On May 21, her host family, who lives in Colleyville, dropped her off at school. She went to class but was gone by 11:30 a.m., according to a Colleyville police report.

Alyan left with just her school supplies, her passport and about $100, police reported. Her host family said she had talked to an aunt in Canada before leaving.

An official with World Link, which sponsored Alyan, told police that she had probably received help from an California underground network, the police report states. Pam Hamilton of World Link told police that nine of 18 Afghan students sponsored by the organization had fled to Canada, according to the report.

Alyan called her host family May 23, telling them that she was fine and that she was about to cross into Canada. She didn t tell them how she got there or who she was with, according to the police report.

Hamilton declined to comment, referring a reporter s questions to the State Department.

Colleyville Detective David Martz said: 'She is still listed as a missing person. If I got someone from Canada to verify that she is there, then we could change it, but that s not going to happen. We won t know anything unless she tried to get back in this country.'

Chances for asylum

Afghan students have an easier chance of being granted asylum in Canada than in the United States, said immigration attorney Marc Prokosch of Bloomington, Minn.

'Generally, in Canada, someone could accumulate points to get approval, such as knowing English or [saying that] you fear going back to your country,' said Prokosch, who has not handled any Afghan student cases. 'But in the United States, you need to be more specific about the fears.'

The United States grants asylum to people who can show that, if they are returned to their countries, they may be persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. In fiscal 2008, 55 percent of requests for asylum were denied, and that percentage was much higher for those without a lawyer, according to statistics from the Executive Office for Immigration Review.

Canada and the United States have similar provisions in their laws, but Canada judges are known to be more lenient, immigration attorneys have said.

The United States and Canada implemented an agreement in 2004 to help manage the flow of refugees, but Canada exempted people from Afghanistan and a few other countries from restrictions. Canada removed that exemption in July, so Afghan students in the future may find it harder to get asylum there.