The University of Nebraska-Lincoln hosts an array of international student organizations, allowing students to form attachments with peers from across the globe. Out of 34 international student organizations, one group has been without leadership for 12 years: the Afghan Student Association.
In March 2020, this changed. For the first time since 2008, the Afghan Student Association is on UNL’s campus. The club is headed by sisters Sara and Susan Qudus, who serve as president and vice president respectively, along with aid from treasurer Michelle Ebrahim. In AFSA’s constitution, the group promises to unify the Afghan student population of UNL and invites those interested to experience Afghan culture, promoting cultural knowledge through community events.
AFSA’s origins on UNL’s campus began in 2001 as a collective team effort from various family members of Sara and Susan Qudus. Susan Qudus, a senior biological systems engineering major, said the Afghan student population at UNL was so dense and well-affiliated with one another that they decided to begin UNL’s first Afghan Student Association.
“My uncles, aunts and cousins started AFSA to help with community events and connect the Afghan community from Lincoln and Omaha,” Susan Qudus said. “The Afghan community was a lot larger back then in Lincoln.”
Not only was the community larger according to Susan Qudus, but events thrown by AFSA were more expansive due to lax restrictions on hosting community events. Susan said some of the most memorable events thrown by the organization from 2001 to 2008 were cultural food and drink festivals.
“So many people would donate and bring their own dishes for buffets, so it was not only fun, but a great way for AFSA to generate money,” Susan Qudus said. “It was a really big part of my childhood. I was able to meet Michelle there since those parties were one of the few places we could connect as kids.”
In spite of these collective community events, AFSA shut its doors in 2008. Susan Qudus said the club closed partly because the founding members graduated from UNL. No one stepped in to fill their spots.
“We were really sectioned out age-gap wise,” Susan Qudus said. “There was practically no one in the age-gap between the graduating generation and us.”
Thus, AFSA remained dormant until late 2019, when Sara and Susan Qudus collaborated to restart the international student organization. One contributing reason for the restart of the club, according to Susan, was the amount of incoming Afghan students to UNL, many of them relatives of the Qudus family. This inspired confidence in the Qudus sisters that students would step up and take the mantle of AFSA after the Qudus sisters’ eventual graduation.
Another contributing factor is the hope to reunite the same communal bond for Afghan students at UNL that was achieved under the leadership of the founding members of AFSA.
“We knew that there were other Afghans here apart from our immediate family, but we never had the chance to talk to them so we couldn’t establish a community,” Susan Qudus said. “The community had really distanced themselves from each other. There used to be parties almost every weekend back when I was younger, but now they’ve grown few and far between. So, we thought we should really create something so we can all come back together again.”
To restart the club, Sara Qudus focused on re-working AFSA’s constitution. Additionally, Sara and Susan Qudus met with the staff of the Student Involvement office, which Susan Qudus said aided with constitution improvements, group meetings and generating ideas for community events.
After ironing out the club’s details and working out constitutional amendments with ASUN, AFSA held their first meeting in March of 2020. However, just a week after the initial gathering, UNL’s campus shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The sudden closing of campus initially hampered the hopes of both Sara and Susan Qudus, but virtual AFSA meetings allowed a conversation between the leaders and participants of AFSA to share and pitch ideas for future in-person meetings.
“It was a really good learning experience for all of us,” Susan Qudus said. “It was a rough start at the beginning, but having those meetings allowed us to transform the club and turn it into the type of social event we were hoping for.”
While running the AFSA booth during the 2020 UNL Club Fair, treasurer Michelle Ebrahim, a sophomore psychology major, noticed a variety of students interested in joining the club. Students from all walks of life expressed interest in the reintroduction of the club, which Ebrahim calls a defining moment in working for AFSA.
“People were genuinely interested, not just the Afghan students,” Ebrahim said. “They said, ‘Oh, we didn’t even know that this club existed.’ We received tons of encouraging responses from white students. They would stop by and ask about joining, but thought that they couldn’t join since they weren’t Afghan. I told them that that is not the intention of our club to be segregated, it’s for the purpose of promoting the culture to anyone and everyone who joins.”
Since the UNL Club Fair, AFSA has hosted weekly meetings at the Nebraska Union in the Heritage Room. The meetings cover a wide variety of topics, from news on Afghan pop culture to discussions revolving around the current political climate in Afghanistan.
“We try to have one piece of news or event that’s important in Afghanistan and present it to the club each week,” Ebrahim said. “In the future, we hope to teach more about the culture from the food, to pop culture and even dance.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has limited the number of events AFSA is able to hold, Susan expressed her hopes for holding future events once the threat of the pandemic dies down.
“We really want to throw an event on campus post-COVID so everyone can come and celebrate Afghan culture no matter if they’re part of the club or not,” Susan Qudus said. “We want everyone to experience what we’re doing, whether that be a movie party or hosting a New Year’s Eve event. When Afghans throw parties, it’s really fun, and we want as many people to experience that as possible.”
With weekly meetings and a growing GroupMe chat flowing with conversations on Afghan culture, the leaders of AFSA have bright hopes for the future. Following in the footsteps of their family has added pressure to be the best they can, according to Susan Qudus.
“It's a little intimidating to try and live up to the expectations of what AFSA used to be and even my own expectations since I experienced it firsthand,” Susan Qudus said. “It’s definitely intimidating due to the regulations on food and gatherings due to COVID-19. But I think we will gather enough support with the Afghan community, so I’m excited for the future.”