An Estonian FUBAR: How an Afghan student lost his place in university because of the Taliban – and Estonian inflexibility

An Afghan citizen was accepted to Tallinn University in November 2020 to study at the School of Natural Sciences and Health; now, when the 2021 schoolyear began, he got stuck in India and couldn’t make it to Tallinn in time because of the Taliban takeover of his country – and the university revoked his admission and Estonia cancelled his visa, in a true display of Estonian inflexibility.

Let’s call the 26-year-old man Kamal. It’s not his real name because he’s genuinely afraid that if his real name surfaces on the internet, it will cause problems for his family back in Afghanistan that is now under Taliban control. “My family is in hiding and I want them to have low profile,” Kamal told me, and I believe him. I want to protect his true identity, but I know his full name and I have been in direct contact with him throughout writing this article.

Kamal graduated from a medical school in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and got accepted to Tallinn University in November 2020 to do his master’s degree in wellbeing and health behaviour at the School of Natural Sciences. He flew to India despite of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic because New Delhi has the closest Estonian embassy. He applied for a visa, which he eventually got after his brother – a doctor in Montreal, Canada – sent a sponsorship letter, opting to pay his expenses for his studying and his stay in Estonia – in addition to his own means of funding.

“On 25 August, I got my visa and I informed the university the same day that I got a visa,” Kamal told Estonian World, adding that the visa started on 28 August.

“My brother bought a ticket from New Delhi to Tallinn for 28 August. I was waiting to board the flight, but I was not allowed to board because of the Dubai transit rules.”

The problem that presented was the fact that the Afghan terrorist group, the Taliban, had taken over the country after the US withdrew its forces after the 20-year war. That prompted Dubai not to accept any Afghan citizens in the country – not even for transit.

“And the ticket was without any refund. I searched door to door, embassy to embassy, travel agency to travel agency, looking for a route not requiring a transit visa or banning Afghans on flight,” Kamal said. “We found a ticket via Doha, Qatar, after their embassy said they had no restrictions if you are there for less than 20 hours.” 

A “reason to believe” that Kamal’s purpose “to visit Estonia is not to study”

“So my brother immediately bought the ticket and I was at the airport 1 September and waiting to board when I received an email from the Estonian embassy [in New Delhi] that my visa had been cancelled – as the university had informed them that my admission had been revoked. And just before my eyes, I saw big lines drawn on my visa, on my education dreams.” 

Kamal's Estonian visa with lines drawn and the word "REVOKED" written on it. We've blurred out the important details and his photo to protect his identity. Photo: courtesy of Kamal.
Kamal’s Estonian visa with lines drawn and the word “REVOKED” written on it. We’ve blurred out the important details and his photo to protect his identity. Photo: courtesy of Kamal.

Through many kind people – mostly in Canada and the US – Estonian World got possession of some of the emails the Estonian embassy in New Delhi and Tallinn University sent Kamal. Since his brother is a doctor in Montreal, he sought the help of the local Estonian expats there, through whom the saga got the attention of a Canadian-American journalist, who contacted an American with close ties to the Estonians – and both of them contacted me.

On 1 September, the Estonian embassy in New Delhi sent an email to Kamal, saying that Tallinn University had proposed “to annul the decision on the admission of [Kamal] to Tallinn University, because based on his correspondence with the Department of Studies and the Academic Unit, there is reason to believe that the purpose of a foreign student candidate to visit Estonia is not to study. In addition, the academic calendar stipulates that the deadline for foreign students to arrive in Estonia was 23.08. The candidate was granted an extension until 1 September, by which time he had not come to Estonia.”

The email added that “this decision means that you do not have a basis for a visa anymore”. The email was sent to Kamal directly and also to the email address of the Estonian Police and Border Guard Board’s Tallinn Airport office.

On 2 September, an email from the Estonian embassy in New Delhi read, “[Kamal] applied D-visa as a student. Yesterday we received information from the University that for various reasons, the University has decided that [Kamal] is no longer expected to study in Estonia, Tallinn University.” 

“Various reasons.” Sounds legit?

“This means the requirements for granting a visa are no longer being fulfilled and the visa was revoked,” the email added.

“Cannot accept late arrival”

“The case was certainly not pleasant, but a return from Estonian border would have been even more unpleasant,” the embassy’s email continued, noting that they were “very sorry for the inconvenience”.

The Estonian embassy in New Delhi. Photo: the embassy website.
The Estonian embassy in New Delhi. Photo: the embassy website.

On 1 September, Kamal also received an email from Tallinn University, saying that “After consulting with the department of Academic Affairs we cannot accept late arrival.”

“You have not signed a learning agreement and you have not arrived before the deadline, which was on 23rd of August. The fact that you are not in Estonia was found out today (1 September). According to the Academic Affairs Office emails you have not informed us about your flight changes.”

“Unfortunately we can not prolong your admission acceptance anymore. We have now started the process to withdraw the admissions letter. The decision is confirmed by the Head of Studies of School of Natural Sciences and Health.”

All that doesn’t make much sense. Kamal finally got his visa on 25 August, with the validity date of 28 August, and he says he had informed the university of this. At that time, Tallinn University didn’t appear to have any problems with his late arrival.

Moreover, Kamal’s brother emailed both the university and the Estonian embassy, proving that he wasn’t allowed to board his original flight and his tickets for 28 August. And not only did Kamal, in his travels, need to deal with the fact that Afghans are not allowed to transit through certain countries, there’s also the pandemic and travel restrictions stemming from it.

Naturally, Kamal’s brother also got angry – both at the inflexibility of Tallinn University and the fact that it, for some reason, started to “believe” Kamal wasn’t coming to Estonia to study.

Estonia wasted two years of wait, sacrifice, effort, hunger, sleeplessness and hope

“If one didn’t had intention to study, he wouldn’t wait for months in Delhi for visa, wouldn’t buy 2 times tickets to Estonia and wouldn’t sleep nights in airport to just get to his classes while his family in Afghanistan is in unknown condition, he cant talk to them, or know what is going on with them, and the thoughts are scattered,” Bashir (again, not his real name), Kamal’s brother, wrote to the university.

“Please note that Afghans are going through hell tough times. Anyone with a TV, a news channel and heart would be able to see what is going on with Afghans right now. There is no government. There is no bank working, there is no way to contact family for help or money. But even in spite of all above, he managed to buy two separate tickets in just 3 days get to classes. As you can see his tickets final destination were Estonia. Which clearly shows he wants to join his class.”

“Please have some empathy that what is going on with Afghans. Taliban do not allow them to go out, the world including Estonia government say they are committed to help Afghans out, and you are sending email to Honorable Embassy to revoke visa !??!!??!? Just because you think his intention is not study. You know how long he waited to get to his classes, how many times he traveled to India inspite of Covid being in its peak. What else would he need to do?”

“Please note Afghans never had the life to order a pizza or an air ticket by phone. Just buying a simple airline ticket, specially with Covid, requires immense communication, effort, and we need to cross 100 bridges just to get to what you get by a phone call or email.”

Taliban police patrolling the streets of Herat, Afghanistan. Photo: public domain.
Taliban police patrolling the streets of Herat, Afghanistan. Photo: public domain.

“The email you sent is going to waste 2 years of wait, sacrifice, effort, hunger, sleeplessness and hope inspite what is going on with our families in Afghanistan. We Afghans are also human ! please understand our situation. We don’t have a country now, a life, an identity, family. All we have is hope, don’t just take away the hope of study by just sending an irresponsible email.”

Estonian World didn’t edit the direct quotes from Bashir’s emails. We think our readers deserve to see how angry and disappointed he was over this injustice the Republic of Estonia and Tallinn University had inflicted on his brother. We want our readers to see how this typical Estonian inflexibility – the stiff desire to stick to the rules – in cases where flexibility, understanding and, indeed, humanity are much more needed than always going by the book.

“I am so scared and shaking inside because as an Afghan, we are losing everything.”

Back during the Soviet occupation of Estonia, there was an expression: “Estonian officials follow Russian idiocy with German preciseness.” Thirty years have passed since Estonia restored its independence, but the typical average Estonian bureaucrat is still behaving that way.

Kamal, when I interviewed him for this story, pleaded with me to talk to the Estonian authorities and the officials at Tallinn University before publishing this story. Of course, I would have done it anyway, asking for comments, as it’s done in journalism. But I’m taking this case personally, too, because I find that injustice for some is injustice for all. Kamal has fallen victim of the Estonian bureaucracy and inflexibility – something Estonians themselves have had too long to live with.

“I am just a helpless student who wants to study. I don’t want to seek asylum. Please talk to them first. I don’t want to raise their anger more on me. I am scared the way they ignored me.”

“I am so scared and shaking inside because as an Afghan, we are losing everything. That is why I am scared of them blacklisting me in all universities or embassies.”

Afghani children in Kabul. Photo by Sohaib Ghyasi on Unsplash.
Afghani children in Kabul. Photo by Sohaib Ghyasi on Unsplash.

Estonian World sent requests for comment to Tallinn University, the Estonian embassy in New Delhi and the Estonian foreign ministry.

Tallinn University claims its decision to revoke Kamal’s acceptance “was based on information about the whole situation in addition to formal concerns. Unfortunately, it is not possible to disclose these considerations to third parties.”

Kamal could appeal or apply for another type of visa – the foreign ministry

“[Kamal’s] application process to begin his studies at Tallinn University started a year ago, during the fall semester. During the admission process, [Kamal] encountered several difficulties not related to the tragic situation happening in Afghanistan today,” the university’s head of communications, Rein Olesk, told Estonian World.

“The university always deals with such cases in depth and seeks opportunities to be as considerate and flexible as possible in favour of the candidate. We are aware of the moral dilemmas between regulations and a person’s personal circumstances, and try to accommodate our applicants as much as we can. This is also how Tallinn University acted in the case of [Kamal],” he added.

According to Olesk, this year, five students of Afghan origin are studying at Tallinn University, and a total of 21 Afghan students have studied there. 

The Estonian foreign ministry, in its comment to Estonian World, was more concise. “We discussed the issue with the [Estonian] consul [in New Delhi]. … Tallinn University informed the consul in New Delhi that they aren’t welcoming him to study anymore and according to the university, the reason wasn’t only his absence. The consul cancelled the visa as the reason for its issuance disappeared,” Angelika Lebedev, a media advisor at the foreign ministry, said.

However, she added that Kamal does have the option to appeal the cancellation of the visa or apply for an Estonian or a Schengen long-term visa for some other purpose.

“We understand what’s happening in Afghanistan, but the Estonian foreign representations deal with visa applications according to the European Union visa regulations and the [Estonian] Foreigners’ Act,” Lebedev said. “If a person wants international protection, then this goes through different legal procedures.”

Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Photo by Farid Ershad on Unsplash.
Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Photo by Farid Ershad on Unsplash.

“I would be considered a criminal with a revoked visa”

Kamal was just six years old when the Americans invaded his country to topple the Taliban regime. He hasn’t seen peace. But he also hasn’t really seen life under an Islamic extremist rule. Estonia had the chance to save him from this, and it didn’t take it. 

“You might have seen the cross on visa and know its future implications on my life and education endeavour. Only the embassy of Estonia can resolve it. I would be considered a criminal with a revoked visa like that. And I even cannot cut out the page because it would be tampering with passport. The only way is if they stick another visa on top of it. :(”

Let these Kamal’s words sink in. “I am just a helpless student who wants to study. … I am so scared and shaking inside because as an Afghan, we are losing everything.” 

There’s a passage in the Talmud, the central text of the Jewish law. “He who saves one life, saves the world entire.” This should be a universal moral law, despite one’s religion. It should be a law of humanity.

If only the typical average Estonian bureaucrat could understand that – maybe the next Estonian FUBAR wouldn’t happen.

If any other country, if any other university can help Kamal continue his studies or at least get him to safety, please contact me and I’ll most gladly put you in touch.

Cover: The main building of Tallinn University.

1 thought on “An Estonian FUBAR: How an Afghan student lost his place in university because of the Taliban – and Estonian inflexibility”

  1. Excellent article and it should be a wake up call, not just to a university whose mission is to educate and is failing, but to all of us. Hankewitz’s powerful article needs to be read widely. This is not just a case of one young man and one university. It is a reminder that while many suffer others are simply able to turn away and resume their lives of privilege. Thanks Mr. Hankewitz.

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