Karla Lopez’s story began in October 2012, when she was 16 years old and planning to leave Afghanistan. Her family, who were wealthy, wanted her to follow in their footsteps and go to the US to study. She had long been following some Afghan Americans and decided that something was different about them.
At 18 years old, she was no longer impressed by how motivated they were. “They would say that they were treated badly, that the US had treated them badly. But then one day, I couldn’t look at them anymore. I felt betrayed. I wanted to find a way out,” Lopez told NBC Bay Area.
But with the Taliban in power in her native Afghanistan, it was dangerous to travel outside the city by road. To escape, she relied on her money and boyfriend’s help.
Her biggest hurdle: A visa that she would have needed to work in the US. “The day before I was supposed to leave, my boyfriend didn’t hear anything,” she says. “I had so much to do, I was running my legs and head from everything. But I thought I could not keep running, because it would end badly.”
That morning, Lopez went to the US Embassy in Kabul, where she spoke with some visa officers. Later that night, she entered the States alone, and without valid papers. “I remember the first day when I left Afghanistan,” she says. “The whole tunnel was in darkness. It was like the scene from the movie Die Hard.”
Lopez remembers driving at 20 miles per hour and trying to find a place to sleep. “I met so many people along the road. They were all sleeping on the back of trucks and cars, so I stopped to sleep in the truck,” she says. “But I did not see many people coming, because there were also people stopping by to make a living off the lack of drivers.”
With her boyfriend, she moved to LA. He helped to pay for her safe passage. “After that, everything was okay,” Lopez says. She got a job, she started going to college, and she started dating people from other countries who had also fled their countries. She realized the huge difference between living in America, where she could not be threatened by the state, and living in Afghanistan, where the risk of being shot or kidnapped was high. “What we experienced in America was exactly like the American dream,” she says.
Lopez felt so safe, she started her own business, called Wheels, which arranges drive trips. She took a huge risk. “People were so mad. They said I did not have a visa and was going to try to cross the border illegally,” she says.
“But I did not care about a visa,” she says. Her main mission was to bring something back to Afghanistan, to develop the country and to help its children. She did not want to continue studying in a school in another country, where she had no connection with her relatives. “The chance I had to escape was a gift. Without it, I never would have discovered what was inside of me and what God had given me,” she says.
Lopez began by giving classes to students of different ages, before moving on to involve adults. She would come to US schools in her organization’s free rides, offering workshops and tuition with English lessons.
She wanted to return to Afghanistan and do something more meaningful. She founded the Los Angeles Bursar’s Association for Alumni (LBAA) in order to create more scholarships for Afghan students.
She visits her roots with former classmates, who now attend universities all over the world. They travel together, and they meet for dinners. Lopez’s organization, now called Refugee Education and Leadership, takes Bursars from Afghanistan to the US, where they learn English.
Finally, Lopez decided to come to the US, despite the visa problems. She applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows her to work while she is legally present in the US. She registered for Medicaid, she pays federal income taxes, and she travels back and forth between the US and Afghanistan.