Mehreen Usman, '20

March 31, 2020
Independent study on Afghan refugees takes senior to Pakistan

Immigration has long fascinated Mehreen Usman, ’20, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants. This year the Oliver Hill Scholar undertook an independent study, “The Afghan Diaspora in Pakistan: A Comparative Look at Refugees in Rural and Urban Areas,” with leadership studies professor Peter Kaufman serving as her mentor.

Usman said she learned a lot about immigration by taking classes with Kaufman and volunteering with the Scholars Latino Initiative, a nonprofit Kaufman founded to help Latino students gain access to a college education.

“One day Dr. Kaufman and I were talking about groups that migrate in and out of Pakistan,” Usman said. “Our discussion motivated me to do an independent study on the 1.5 million documented Afghan refugees living in Pakistan—the country’s largest group of immigrants.”

Research led Usman to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan website. “The HRCP works with people who are vulnerable to human rights abuses, such as religious and ethnic minorities, women, and refugees,” she said.

Usman reached out to the HRCP and was offered a month-long internship and the chance to continue her research on Afghan refugees during her winter break from college. A Richmond Scholars Enrichment Grant covered the cost of her round-trip airfare to Lahore, Pakistan, and some living expenses.

“It was a great opportunity to further my academic studies, practice my Urdu, visit relatives, and reconnect with my roots,” Usman said. “The HRCP is digitizing records on refugees and immigrants. I used those records as well as quantitative data I gathered from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to further my research.

“Specifically, I looked at the health, education, and upward social mobility of Afghan refugees. Pakistan has one of the world's greatest number of school-age children not attending school. It is even harder for Afghan refugee children living in Pakistan to obtain an education when so few Pakistani children get an education.

“Afghan women are also disadvantaged when it comes to education, health care, and employment. They don’t have much of a voice.”

The Pakistani government issues proof of registration cards to Afghan refugees and renews the cards’ validity every year, Usman said. The result is that some Afghan refugees who came in the 1970s, as well as their children who were born in Pakistan, still have proof of registration cards and no clear path to citizenship.

“Afghan refugees are vulnerable,” Usman said. “Poverty is cyclical: If the parents were uneducated and living in poverty, their children likely will be too.

“My family’s experience in the United States was so different. My dad, who was trained as a doctor, got a green card relatively quickly because he agreed to take a job practicing medicine in a rural town in Missouri. We eventually moved to Kansas. Mom got both her master’s and doctoral degrees in the United States.

My parents became U.S. citizens when I was in seventh grade. I’ve been able to get a great education at University of Richmond,” said Usman, who is majoring in leadership studies and economics.

She would like to see Afghan refugees and impoverished Pakistani citizens benefit from education in the same way her family has. 

“A recent Pakistani law made education free and compulsory for all children ages 5-16,” Usman said. “But if there’s no school in the town, the law can’t be implemented. Access to a decent education is the solution to better health outcomes and standards of living for Afghan refugees.” 

Photo: Mehreen Usman, '20, outside the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan