Safe and unsilenced: Afghan scholars find refuge at US universities

The World
woman on bench

Masuma Mohammadi sits on a bench at San José State University, where she's been hired to research Afghanistan from a safe distance. 

Courtesy of Sara Arman

Masuma Mohammadi was a radio reporter for the United Nations News service for a popular news program in Afghanistan called “Hello Countrymen, Countrywomen,” before the Taliban took over the country in August of 2021.

Her work as a journalist and women’s rights activist made her a target for the Taliban. She was forced to flee and found refuge in the US, a country she had visited only once, years ago.

Mohammadi has been in San Jose, California, with a residency at San Jose State University, for six months now. Her research detailing the persecution of the ethnic Hazara in Afghanistan is work she could never do in her home country.

“Afghan women have been completely removed from the structure of [public] life in Afghanistan,” Mohammadi said, adding that the country is experiencing a profound human rights and humanitarian crisis.

Girls aren’t allowed to attend high school, women are barred from working in offices and nongovernmental organizations, and they’re not allowed to travel or go long distances without a male chaperone.

But through the power of the internet, she and other Afghans like her — journalists, activists and academics — are able to continue their research outside of Afghanistan in the US, thanks to the Afghan Visiting Scholars program, a collaboration between some Bay Area universities.

The program is the brainchild of Halima Kazem-Stojanovic, who was a refugee herself more than 40 years ago when Afghanistan fell to the former Soviet Union.

“My family came as Afghan political refugees in what I call the first migration of Afghans into the United States,” Kazem-Stojanovic said. “My parents knew other Afghan families who lived in San Jose including [the famous author] Khalid Husseini's parents. Our fathers were friends.”

The family settled in San Jose just before she started kindergarten.

Kazem-Stojanovic is now an oral historian on Afghanistan at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, but for 10 years, she was a journalism and human rights professor at San Jose State — and a core faculty member of its Human Rights Institute.

Because her work has often taken her to Afghanistan, she has many connections there.

“This has meant incredible opportunities to make very close friendships in Afghanistan. I trained more than 300 journalists in the last 20 years in Afghanistan,” she said. “Many became wonderful friends, and that's a very dear title we have among Afghans, when you're considered a cousin, even though you're not by blood.”

As Kabul fell to the Taliban, she received hundreds of messages on her WhatsApp and Signal accounts, like: “How do we get out of here?” “Can you send money?” “I can't go home.”

Kazem-Stojanovic said most of the people she was in contact with are in hiding. One photographer she knew dug a hole in his yard to bury his awards, including his Pulitzer Prize.

She reached out to her network in the US to help Afghan academics and journalists get out of the country — but also, to support people once they arrived in the US.

As the child of an economics professor who couldn’t teach in the United States, Kazem-Stojanovic was keenly aware that these refugees would need financial and professional support to establish themselves on this side of the Pacific.

“I thought, possibly, I could give some — a few — an opportunity not only to come here, but continue their public-facing work,” Kazem-Stojanovic said.

She found ready collaborators at the University of California, Berkeley’s Human Rights Center and her own San José State University. And so began the Afghan Visiting Scholars program.

“Together, we quickly rolled out a crowdfunding campaign [now ended] because universities work very slowly, the wheels don't turn very fast and we were in an emergency.

“We were in a crisis,” Kazem-Stojanovic said ruefully. “I think we raised over $300,000. And that was the easy part, because then it was, 'all right, well, how do we get people here?'”

She added, “We thought that if we could reach out to members of Congress and senators with lists of people … but they couldn't do very much. The evacuation lists were so long. There were so few places.”

The list of schools that have taken on more Afghan scholars, and participated in the work involved to apply for J-1 academic visas and J-2 visas (for immediate family members), is small but growing; including the University of California, Berkeley, and University of California, Santa Cruz, as well as Yale University, Tennessee State University and The University of Texas at El Paso. 

‘Room and space for Afghans to do the work’

One year later, Kazem-Stojanovic maintains a list of roughly 130 people waiting for academic visas, many of them in Pakistan, India and Turkey. Others are already in the US on humanitarian parole, which allows them to stay for two years.

People get on the list in a variety of ways — starting with an application process.

“Placing the applicant depends on where they are geographically, the field they are in and a variety of immigration factors,” she said. “We have various routes for bringing scholars here. We have to be creative because each person has a unique situation.”

So far, she has found placements for 15 Afghan scholars.

In addition to helping bring Afghans to safety, she said, the program is an avenue for illuminating stories that are often untold in the West.

“There's still so much need to understand this country [Afghanistan] and this part of the world. And I would like to see native Afghans contribute to that,” Kazem-Stojanovic said. “So much of what's published in the West is by non-Afghans. You know, a lot of American and European anthropologists and historians. And there's room and space now for Afghans to do the work.”

The Afghan Visiting Scholars program isn’t the only one of its kind. Stanford University is working with New York-based Scholars at Risk, and the New University in Exile Consortium boasts nearly 60 universities around the world that agreed to host displaced scholars from countries where their lives were in danger.

According to the International Refugee Assistance Project, an estimated 83,000 Afghans were evacuated to the United States, and about 76,000 of them do not have access to a pathway to permanent legal status. The Afghan Adjustment Act, now pending on Capitol Hill, would allow them to apply for permanent legal residency, as happened for Vietnamese people after the Vietnam War, and Kurds after the Iraq War.

“Pass the Afghan Adjustment Act,” Kazem-Stojanovic said. “The people who are here have gone through so much. They need peace of mind. They need to know that their lives are secure in the future and they will be wonderful, incredible assets to this country.”

Expanding possibilities in the US

Faisal Karimi is another Afghan who has benefited from the Afghan Visiting Scholars Program.

After 20 years as a journalist, academic and women’s rights activist, Karimi’s life was turned upside-down last year. The assistant professor of journalism and communications at Herat University in western Afghanistan had to flee, along with his wife and children.

“I produced dozens of stories about Taliban policy and ideology. My life, my family was in danger. … We received many calls, threats and messages from the Taliban.”

Karimi destroyed his SIM card to obscure his movements, but managed to get in touch with nongovernmental organizations that had worked with him in the past, to evacuate his colleagues, as well as himself, within 10 days of the collapse of Herat to the Taliban.

The 22-hour public bus trip to Kabul over bombed-out roads was harrowing, as was the refugee camp his family lived in for seven months in Albania, but so was the prospect of starting from scratch in a strange land he’d visited once in 2013.

“I never [thought] that I’d come back again forever, to be a San Josean.”

So many refugees evacuated to the US and other countries wind up doing poorly paid or physically demanding jobs in health care, meatpacking and restaurants.

At an American university, Karimi is able to continue to make use of his intelligence and education, not to mention his English-language skills. Today, he’s a visiting research scholar at San Jose State, studying the Taliban and publishing news stories from the US.

“From here, we’re covering women’s challenges in Afghanistan, women's protests,” he said. “The local media, they’re not allowed to.”

Karimi hopes to pursue a doctorate degree in communications here, and then a career as a journalism professor.

“California and the United States is my second home. I really appreciate America’s people: their support, their kindness, everything they’ve provided for me and my family to stay in the United States.”

For Mohammadi, too, the chance to keep working is important. Although she's still learning to navigate an entirely new system and culture, she said that she is grateful to be in a position to make a positive difference in her home country from the relative safety of San Jose. And, it’s work that would be hard for a non-Hazaras, she said.

“We don’t hear stories from people, stories from victims, what situation they are living under, what their problems [are], what’s their request from the US, from the international community. In this way, we raise their voices,” Mohammadi said.

An earlier version of this story was published by KQED.

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