My “meaningless” education abroad

When human rights lawyer Aynur Jafar set her sights on pursuing a prestigious education abroad, she faced an uphill battle of red tape and the government’s tepid attitude. But as she forged ahead, she came to discover the real reason why Azerbaijan would not support young students to study abroad.

By Aynur Jafar

When young Azerbaijani human rights lawyer Aynur Jafar set her sights on pursuing a prestigious education abroad, she faced an uphill battle of red tape and the government’s tepid attitude. But as she forged ahead, she came to discover the real reason why Azerbaijan would not support young students to study abroad.

I wanted to “breathe”

In 2013, I start mulling the idea of pursuing a master’s degree in the United States. Though I already had a graduate degree from a European university, I wanted to “breathe” and get away from the suffocating political climate in the country.

In March 2014, I was admitted into the University of California, Berkeley Law School.

Getting admission from one of the world’s top institutions, however, was only half of the battle. The real struggle was to find the wherewithal to pay for the costly education. I needed $73,000, which could provide at least three women with dowry in Azerbaijan.

Therefore, I decided to apply for a state scholarship program under the Azerbaijani Ministry of Education. Though I did not believe in the integrity of the Azerbaijani government and was never shy in promoting

human rights

, I still harbored a naïve belief that the government would support young people and their ambitions, regardless of political views.

Invisible factor

Shortly after submitting my documents, I was invited for an interview with the Ministry of Education. I was later informed that I passed the interview, and was accepted into the scholarship program.

For a young activist who vocally criticized the government and befriended prominent rights defenders, this meant a lot. Beyond the material value, it restored my hope for the future of Azerbaijan and faith in the Education Ministry.

Yet, there was an invisible side of the iceberg.

After reviewing applications, the Ministry of Education sends all the students’ data to the Presidential Administration for the final blessing.

In June, I received a notification that my candidacy was submitted to the Presidential Administration, who would have the final word.

June passed by, so did July but the administration was dead silent. When August came, I had to commence my studies in the US and could no longer wait for the answer.

Scant resources but ample determination

With scant resources but ample determination, I applied for a visa, sold my car, depleted savings and set out to San Francisco. The first thing I did upon arrival to Berkeley was to speak with the school administration and explain my situation. Though the requirement was to pay at least 20% of the tuition fee by September, the school made an exception for me and agreed to wait until the administration made their mind.

Weeks and months passed by and yet no word from Baku.

Preventing the becoming of new activists

As hopes started to fade, it was becoming abundantly clear why the government would torpedo my plans for a Western education. My good friend and mentor Intigam Aliyev had been jailed by that time. Recognized as a political prisoner by Amnesty International, Aliyev was charged with tax evasion, abuse of office and a slew of other trumped-up charges. His health is rapidly deteriorating, raising concerns among NGOs like

Freedom House

that Aliyev may face the fate of Russia’s Sergei Magnitskiy, who died in custody. My former supervisor at NGO Tender Monitoring Committee Alovsat Aliyev is now living in asylum in Germany for fear of persecution.

A number of other activists found themselves in duress –

Rasul Jafarov

, Khadija Ismayilova, Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif, to name only a few.

Denying foreign scholarships to dissident students is part and parcel of the government’s repression strategy – both “reactively” jailing outspoken critics and “proactively” preventing the becoming of new ones.

“Meaningless” education

Just recently, the parliament discarded education abroad as meaningless. In May, the Azerbaijani Parliament held discussions about the law, which restricts military deferral for those studying abroad. Parliament Speaker Ogtay Asadov said that five thousand students received “meaningless” diplomas from foreign universities.

“Getting meaningless education and diplomas should be prevented,” he said.

While my education may have been meaningless for theAzerbaijani government, it wasn’t for Berkeley.

After months of deafening silence from Baku and with a hefty bill to pay, I called the Presidential Administration in mid-November and was informed that my scholarship was denied.

A week later, I received an e-mail from the university:

“Dear Aynur,

We take into account your education and work background as well as the situation in your country and granting you with a full tuition scholarship. This scholarship does not put extra obligation on you. Just continue on the path to greatness that you are on and make us proud!”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Unlike my government, this foreign entity believed in me and supported my goals.

After juggling three part-time jobs on top of full-time studies to cover living expenses, I graduated a year later with a Master of Laws degree from Berkeley.

In Azerbaijan, oil largesse is restricted to few

In education like in many other areas, Azerbaijan’s oil largesse is restricted only to those who espouse pro-government views. The façade of opulence is betrayed by spaces of poverty, favoritism and unequitable distribution of wealth. There is a state-funded program to provide education grants to talented youth but it shuts out many gifted students, if they don’t “play by the rules.”

The Education Minister is young and US educated, but the Presidential Administration is dominated by the old guard – fearful of young people’s potential, of critical minds and ideas that come with exposure to Western education.

It’s not uncommon for autocratic regimes to put a lid on foreign education opportunities to stifle potential dissent. Russia infamously did that in October 2014 by abolishing the Future Leaders Exchange Program amid its ongoing standoff with the US and internal crackdown.

As Azerbaijan is putting the finishing touches on preparations for the European Games, the country cannot continue to project its image of openness without truly embracing democratic ideals and supporting young people.

Until that day, Azerbaijan will remain a wealthy country of the poor.

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