Afghan student invited to UN youth climate summit denied US visa

Teen selected to participate in first UN youth climate summit unable to travel as US embassy rejects visa application.

Afghan climate activist
Elham said he wants to tackle the issue of climate change in war-torn areas and less secure places [Terrakit Vichitanankul/UWC Thailand]

An Afghan student invited to attend the first United Nations youth climate summit in New York has been denied a US visa.

Nasratullah Elham, 17, was selected as one of more than 500 young climate activists to take part in the UN summit that takes place on Saturday.

The summit aims to bring together youth climate leaders from around the world to showcase their solutions and raise awareness about tackling climate change.

“What I was really frustrated by was that the guy [embassy official] didn’t really take much time to look at my documents or ask me many questions,” Elham, a grade 12 student at the United World Colleges (UWC) Thailand International School, told Al Jazeera of the interview process at the US embassy in Bangkok.

“I find it really unfair. I got generalised by the entire population of my country with the immigrant problem. I’ve been put into that category and considered to be a part of the problem rather than someone who is trying to solve another global problem,” he said.

Elham was handed a rejection letter following his interview at the embassy last week.

Dated February 4, 2014, the letter handed to Elham said the teenager was ineligible for a visa under section 214(b) of the US immigration and nationality act – the section presumes immigration intent by a nonimmigrant applicant.

Elham’s trip to New York was being covered by his institution in Phuket where he’s studying on a full scholarship. 

His school reapplied for an emergency appointment at the US consulate in Chiang Mai but the request was rejected on Monday and he was told his case came under Bangkok’s jurisdiction.

A US state department official declined to comment to Al Jazeera on the case, saying “visa records are confidential according to US law”.

‘It was my dream’

The UN selected 100 “Green Ticket” winners from 100 countries – out of more than 7,000 applicants – providing them fully-funded, carbon-neutral travel to New York for the youth climate summit.  

Eighty-six “Green Ticket” winners have been granted visas to attend the gathering, according to Florencia Soto Nino, associate spokesperson for UN’s secretary-general.

The inaugural youth event precedes the annual UN climate action summit that takes place on Monday, in an attempt to pressure world leaders to lower greenhouse gas emissions in line with the landmark Paris climate agreement signed in 2015.

Elham, who hails from the rural town of Mihtarlam, in eastern Afghanistan, founded the Laghman Peace Volunteers (LPV) initiative, organising public awareness workshops and meeting government officials to draw attention towards climate change in his province. 

He has proposed solutions to reduce methane gas emissions and deforestation in war-affected areas.

“It was my dream to talk as a speaker on this global stage,” Elham said. “I was really happy that I finally found an opportunity that helped me to represent the world conflict areas in a conference where they are talking about defining issues of our time.”

Jason McBride, head of the school, said Elham’s visa denial is a “punch in the gut” and “bureacracy is what got in the way”. 

“Every country has the right to protect its borders and do whatever it needs to do. But when the politics get in the way of something that is apolitical like climate, it just feels like we’ve missed a real opportunity,” he told Al Jazeera.

On Tuesday, a UN representative in New York contacted the UN office in Bangkok who reached out to the US embassy, Samantha Gayfer, senior communications and philanthropy manager at UWC Thailand, told Al Jazeera. 

“We’re literally running out of options. But the most important thing is to still raise awareness about the situation that many of the young activists face because they belong to a specific nationality or they have a passport of a specific country,” said Elham.

This is not the first time an Afghan youth has been denied a US visa for a global gathering. 

In 2017, an all-girls robotics team were twice refused visas before being allowed to enter on a parole status and attend an international competition in Washington, DC.

Follow Saba Aziz on Twitter: @saba_aziz

Source: Al Jazeera