The 16th International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics (IOAA) will be held this year in Silesia, Poland on August 10-20, 2023. 265 students from 53 countries will take part in this annual competition that challenges select high school students from around the world in astronomical science.
One group of student in particular stands out in overcoming incredible odds to qualify for participation in this event, and they need financial help to be able to attend. Student from Afghanistan have been restricted from publicly participating in science activities like astronomy due to the presence of the Taliban. Additionally, a majority of the students from Afghanistan who qualified to attend the IOAA are girls, and since the Taliban returned to power nearly two years ago, they have resumed pushing women and girls out of public life and out of schools.
The Afghanistan students who qualified for this year’s IOAA are part of a group called Kayhana. This is a dedicated group of Afghan astronomy enthusiasts whose mission is to inspire and educate youth in their country, particularly young women, in the field of astronomy.
Kayhana was founded in 2018 by Amena Karimyan, a civil engineer and formerly an instructor at Herat Technical Institute who was one of the first women astronomers in Afghanistan. In 2020 her all-girl education group won an award from the International Astronomy and Astrophysics competition, and won a telescope from the International Astronomical Union’s Telescopes For All project. In 2021, Karimyan was chosen by the BBC as one of 100 Inspiring Women of the year.
But Karimyan is now living in exile in Germany, driven out of Afghanistan due to her persistence in teaching astronomy. She is asking for assistance so that the students can try to attend the IOAA, and has started a GoFundMe campaign. They are very close to their goal of €10,300, and we are asking Universe Today readers to help push the campaign past their goal.
“Since its inception in 2018, Kayhana has not received any financial support from anywhere,” Karimyan told Universe Today. “I have always worked in the construction engineering part of my academic field and used it for Keyhana. But now I am not really in a position to pay this fee alone. Therefore, for the first time, I created a funding program. This is our last hope.”
Seven people from Afghanistan (five students and two leaders) will travel to Poland. Karimyan said the funds will be used for expenses such as location fees, visa costs, transportation, accommodation, and educational materials. The donations will enable the students to attend the IOAA, while uplifting Afghan youth, and fostering a passion for astronomy despite the adversity they face.
We’ve written previously about the challenges and perils of amateur astronomy in Afghanistan. Kayhana is the only active scientific group in Afghanistan. They have 150 members, with a significant portion of their members being young women. On the GoFundMe page, Karimyan wrote, “By supporting them, you will demonstrate your commitment to empowering Afghan youth and showing solidarity with their pursuit of scientific knowledge.”
Karimyan said Kayhana will soon open a YouTube channel “as the first and most reliable scientific resource in Afghanistan and we are hard at work training our members right now. Along with the many other committees that exist, we recently got a professor in the Olympiad department.”
Karimyan’s story is remarkable. When the Taliban returned to power, Karimyan was arrested, whipped and beaten. She was able to find refuge in the Austrian embassy in Islamabad, and had hopes of finding asylum in Austria; however, her visa request was denied. She escaped to Pakistan, and later was able to go to Germany, thanks to a German journalist Evelyn Schalk, who wrote an incredible profile of Karimyan. Recently, Karimyan learned that her father died “under great pressure” in Afghanistan.
“I don’t know how much a person has to sacrifice, and get hurt to be successful. But I am stubborn, and with Kayhana I want to give Afghan students a sense of hope for their future,” she said.
Despite everything she has gone through, she persists in online activities with Kayhana. She said despite threats of death, she and the volunteers at Kayhana intend to resist.
“In a world where today a woman wants to walk on the Moon in the new Artemis project,” Karimyan said, “and at the same time in that same world there is a place where women not only have no right to education, but also no right to live.”
But she sees the chance for Afghan students to attend the IOAA as a big win.
“I would like people around the world to see that the people of Afghanistan are actually fighting,” she said. “Even though the gates of education are closed, our students want to compete with the superpowers of knowledge. It takes a lot of courage.”
Karimyan asks for everyone’s support, financially if you can, but she said there are other ways people around the world can support them, too.
“We accept any kind of support,” she said. “We are even looking for people to sing for us, because music is the language of the soul. Music is also a big struggle for us. From all walks of life, we welcome any kind of help they would like to give us with open arms, as it will have a profound impact on the lives of Afghan youth and help shape a brighter future for their country.”
For more information, and to learn how to make a contribution, see the GoFundMe page.
Read an article Karimyan wrote for Nature, Women astronomers in Afghanistan need the world’s support