Story by Steve Neumann
Image Courtesy of Rohullah Balkhi
Afghan entrepreneur Rohullah Balkhi ’23 MBA returned to Lehigh to complete his studies during the 2022 Taliban takeover of his beloved country.
Twenty years after Rohullah Balkhi of Mazar-i-Sharif received his undergraduate degree at Kabul University—during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan—he was earning his MBA remotely from Lehigh. In May 2021, while Balkhi was at Lehigh, the Taliban launched an offensive against the Afghan government as U.S. forces withdrew.
When the Taliban reached Balkhi’s hometown that June, he fled with his family across the border to Uzbekistan, where he held a student visa. Balkhi, his wife Dina, and his four children remained in Uzbekistan until August 2022, when he was finally able to come to the U.S. to continue work on his MBA. Balkhi completed his studies and earned his degree in May 2023.
Balkhi’s journey to the U.S., and Lehigh Business, began in 2015, when he took part in Lehigh University’s Iacocca Global Village, an immersive program that teaches students and young professionals of all ages entrepreneurship and leadership skills while preparing them to thrive in a global community.
According to Balkhi, two activists, Marla Gitther and Pamela Varkony, members of an NGO called Business Council for Peace, of which Balkhi is a country manager in Afghanistan, invited him to participate in the 2015 Global Village program.
At the time, Balkhi was teaching project management at a few universities in Afghanistan, but realized an MBA would bolster both his teaching credentials and his business, a management consulting company, 3D Consulting.
With the help of Gitther and Varkony, Balkhi applied for and subsequently received a 50% scholarship and student visa to complete his MBA at Lehigh in person. After starting his coursework online, Balkhi had planned to come to the U.S. to complete his coursework before returning to Afghanistan to grow his company and continue his teaching.
“In 2021, I was attending my virtual class while hearing artillery and explosions; my house was located on the frontlines,” Balkhi remembers. “I still managed to listen and participate in my class lectures.”
Unfortunately, life became more challenging and impossible for Balkhi. He said he was put on the Taliban’s target list because his company worked on programs like the Business Council for Peace, which has the explicit goal of empowering women.
“I oversaw the Bpeace projects, business strategies, and operations in Afghanistan to create jobs and help women-owned businesses grow by pairing them with volunteer business experts,” Balkhi says.
Balkhi was fortunate to have left the country when he did. When he had sent an employee ahead to one of the neighboring provinces two hours away to set up for a Bpeace program the next day, the Taliban were already there.
“I asked my colleague to stay there overnight, but unfortunately the Taliban executed him during the night by hanging him from a beam of the ceiling,” Balkhi says.
In the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal and subsequent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Balkhi said he plans to make the U.S. his family’s new home.
“My ultimate vision in life is to raise my children to be educated and helpful people,” Balkhi says. “I think the U.S. is the best place now to achieve this. My wife is planning to study English, and my four kids are in school here now. Those first days were hard for me, but now this has become my country.”
Balkhi applied for asylum in November 2022, but as of September 2023, has not received any final determination of his status. He does have his Employment Authorization Card which allowed him to accept the offer he received for a project manager position at a manufacturing company in the Lehigh Valley.
In the meantime, Balkhi continues to rely on the support of various folks in the Lehigh Valley, support which began when he first came to the Lehigh campus in 2015, and continued through the completion of his MBA.
“When I came here I had a lot of adjustment challenges, and I was separated from my extended family,” Balkhi says. “Psychologically, it was hard for me; but I’m thankful to all the people at Lehigh Business and in the Lehigh Valley. They stood with me and my family in a very difficult situation.”