A 17-year-old activist from Afghanistan is locked out of the UN climate summit because of a visa rejection

Hilary Brueck
Elham visa rejection

courtesy of Nasratullah Elham


  • This weekend the United Nations (UN) is hosting its first-ever Youth Climate Summit ahead of the general climate summit next week. 
  • More than 500 young people from around the world are expected to be there, including 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg.
  • 17-year-old high school senior Nasratullah Elham, a climate activist from Afghanistan, won't be joining her. His temporary stay visa was rejected earlier this month, and it may not be the only one. 
  • Elham told Insider "They consider me to be a world problem, rather than someone who is trying to solve a world problem."
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Nasratullah Elham thought that today was going to be the day he arrived in New York to attend the first-ever UN Youth Climate Summit.

Instead, the 17-year-old from Afghanistan is staying put in Thailand, where he's a senior in high school, after his visa application to spend 5 days in the US was rejected earlier this month. 

"I didn't really expect it," Elham told Insider. "They just put me into a category of a world problem. They consider me to be a world problem, rather than to be someone who's trying to solve another world problem."

This may not be the only visa rejection for the event. A communications staffer associated with the UN climate event told Insider that at least one other attendee from Rwanda didn't get their visa request approved in time to attend this weekend's event. 

Elham wanted to meet other teens like him and learn their ideas for solving the climate crisis

Elham, who's currently on scholarship at an international school in Thailand, says he's been part of a "small group of activists" working on climate issues in eastern Afghanistan for a couple years now. They've set up climate workshops for high school and university students, and worked with environmental, religious, and political leaders on new ideas for protecting the environment and endangered species.

In August, he was selected by the United Nations to attend their Youth Climate Summit. Elham said he was excited to meet up and collaborate with other young people interested in combating the climate crisis.

But he also knew the clock was ticking to get his visa approved. He said his letter from the UN arrived on August 28 in Thailand, less than a month away from the September 21 summit. He visited the US Embassy in Bangkok on September 9, escorted by a teacher from his international school who is a US citizen. 

Elham said that he knew the timing was tight. 

"For an Afghan passport it's pretty late," he said. "I thought maybe the UN can do this kind of stuff, and they have the power to get me in there." 

His visa still was rejected under a section of US immigration law that states every foreigner "shall be presumed to be an immigrant," until they prove otherwise. In other words, Elham's request to travel to the US was likely rejected because he was considered a flight risk. (Elham said the UN did try to intervene after the rejection, but to no avail.)

Elham has to complete high school this year back in Thailand in order to be eligible for his school's college scholarships. 

"I must come back and finish," he said. "Who is gonna leave a scholarship to choose to live in the US illegally?" 

visa rejection presumed immigrant

Courtesy of Nasratullah Elham

His plan had been to stay in the country for 5 days, traveling directly back to school after the Climate Action Summit was over.

"I wanted to participate entirely in the summit, but also not to miss a lot of class here," he said. "You understand that right? You've been a high school student."

A US State Department official told Insider that "we are unable to comment on specific cases," as they are considered confidential under US law. 

Visa rejections are common for people traveling on Afghan passports

US visa rejections are routine for people from Afghanistan.

In 2016, the US State Department reported that the visa refusal rate for B-visas (a non-immigrant type of temporary stay visa) from Afghanistan was the second highest of any country in the world, at 73.8%. Another group of six teenage girls who were traveling to the US from Afghanistan for a robotics competition were denied similar visas to Elham's in 2017 — a decision that President Trump eventually reversed himself

Though he knows monitoring the news out of the UN summit remotely won't be the same as being there, Elham's not completely disheartened about the visa rejection. 

"We have the technology today where it's not going to keep me isolated," he said. 

One of the issues he feels most passionately about is carbon taxes, which can require polluters (like corporations) to pay for their impact on the planet. Elham, who interviewed Afghanis whose livelihoods and homes were completely washed away by flooding in Afghanistan earlier this year, said it's stories like theirs that inspire him to stay engaged in the climate fight.

"The impact goes back to these poor people, who haven't contributed anything to this big problem," he said. "And then they are the first people getting affected, really badly." 

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Elham was a "Green Ticket" winner and would have his travel paid for by the UN. This year's Green Ticket winners are all at least 18 years old, and Elham was not one of them. 

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