New Delhi - Upon arriving in India, the first place Arif Ahmady visited was the Taj Mahal.
But it was hope for a better future that enticed Ahmady to leave his home in Kabul, Afghanistan last February. The second place he visted was Delhi University. Now he is busy scouting graduate schools to study computer science, checking out housing options, and connecting with other Afghan students in India.
"I want to study in a peaceful space, get an Indian degree because it has a great reputation in Afghanistan, go back and build a career," says the 23-year-old, wearing a black cotton tunic, baggy pants, and a traditional Afghan scarf wrapped around his neck.
Indian cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and Bhubaneswar attract thousands of Afghan youth to study. About 5,500 Afghan students are currently in the country, says Shaida Mohammad Abdali, Afghanistan's ambassador to India, of whom about 300 are women.
"We call this area ‘Afghan Nagar' and anyone coming from Afghanistan knows this is the go-to place."
- Arif Ahmady, Afghan student
Low cost of living, scholarships, familiarity with the country's culture and language, good relations between governments, easy-to-obtain visas, and the use of English in the classroom are some of the main reasons Afghans like to study in India, Ahmady explains.
On a recent evening, he walked into an Afghan bakery in South Delhi's bustling Lajpat Nagar market. Three-wheel rickshaws are lined on the street. Cars honk. Hawkers sell coconut water and spicy street food, calling out to the evening crowd hopping between upscale stores and open stalls.
"We call this area ‘Afghan Nagar' and anyone coming from Afghanistan knows this is the go-to place," Ahmady says. There are two such bakeries and three restaurants, and many guesthouses and apartments housing Afghan students, guests, medical refugees and asylum seekers.
The tiny bakery is more like a shed, its walls black with soot. One of the bakers is kneading dough, the other is scaling and shaping it. Another, whose face is covered with a thin, coarse cotton towel, sticks the dough into the interior wall of the oven.
Ahmady gingerly picks up six pieces of bread for 30 cents each and wraps them in a newspaper. "Three decades of unending war and a crippled education system have forced those with aspirations out," he says, raising his voice to be heard above the street noise.
Those who can afford to go to Europe and the United States to study. Some choose Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkey. Pakistan and Iran were once top destinations, but that is no longer the case, says Ahmady.
Visa rules for Iran have become stringent in recent years, while Pakistan has become unpopular among students and the state. "The Afghan government feels those who went to Pakistan returned as terrorists, so we are discouraged to go there," says Ahmady, adding those with Pakistani degrees don't find jobs easily. India is a cheap and quality option.
Each year, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations gives 2,325 scholarships to international students. Six-hundred and seventy-five are reserved for Afghans, the largest of any nationality. In recent years, a number of agencies have sprouted up in India and Afghanistan to aid in the application process.
Some people think that Afghan people are terrorists - and this hurts me too much.
"Afghanistan is still coming out of a deeply troubled recent history of terrorism, militancy and a civil war. They have great need to train and educate personnel to put their economy on track," explains Suresh Kumar Goel, director general of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.
"The increase of the number of scholarships for Afghanistan is part of India’s partnership with Afghanistan in that process."
The largest concentration of Afghan students is in Pune, in Maharashtra state, says Ambassador Abdali.
Ahmed Reshad Mongry, who is pursuing a master's degree in political science from Pune University, chose Pune for its weather and relaxed environment. In Afghanistan peace and safety are fragile, he says.
"The main problem, which I faced in India, is that some people think that Afghan people are terrorists - and this hurts me too much," Mongry says, adding sometimes landlords refuse to rent rooms to Afghan students.
Mohammad Safa Sarwary, 25, earned his bachelor's degree at Delhi University. He says his Indian degree and English-language proficiency helped him clinch a job at the Afghanistan Independent Bar Association in Kabul. He fondly recalls his student day. "I still laugh when I remember how I ate only bananas for two days when I first arrived in India because the food was so hot."
India is also attracting Afghan women such as A Horyan, who asked that her full name not be used. "My parents fully supported my decision to come to India. But not all girls are so lucky," says the 26-year-old student, who recently completed her master's in zoology from Pune University. Culturally, it is more acceptable to go abroad for studies if family members accompany you, she adds.
Horyan says the quality of education, particularly science and technical courses, is a major hook. Horyan first applied for a scholarship in 2008. She didn't get it, but a year after her marriage both she and her husband came to India. He enrolled in a doctorate programme and she chose a postgraduate course at the same university.
She says women's education took a backseat during Taliban rule, when they were not allowed to go to university and were wrapped in burqas. "Things are changing, some families are encouraging their daughters to study, go abroad and work."
Indian soap operas are part of daily life in Afghanistan, so she did not experience culture shock, she says. There is a close bond among the Afghans here; she personally knows about 100 Afghan women students.
But Horyan is sure she wants to return home. "Maybe I will teach. The war has taken a toll. There are so few professors and experts left in Afghanistan."