UC campuses rallied to host at-risk Afghan scholars fleeing the Taliban in 2021 — but can they keep them?
When Shahba Shahrukhi was a young girl living in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the ’90s, she dreamed of being able to read, write and be educated as her older sister had been before the ultraconservative faction rose to power in 1996.
“I would think,’ is it possible one day scholarship would be open for me?’ Then I’d say, ‘no it’s a dream,’” Shahrukhi, now 32, recalled. “But, since September 2001 in the U.S., everything changed.”
After American troops had overthrown Taliban forces, women regained opportunities that had been denied them under a fundamentalist regime. It was a defining moment in Shahrukhi’s life.
“I was able to go to school, go to university, to vote. Then I became a woman activist and every day worked with women’s rights,” she said Thursday.
Shahrukhi ran in Afghanistan’s 2018 parliamentary elections on an independent platform. She did not win but was later offered a position in the administrative office of then-President Ashraf Ghani, where she helped lead initiatives focused on women and girls.
She never imagined the Taliban would return to power, that the progress women had made would disintegrate as they were denied access to jobs, education and countless personal freedoms. But then one day, in August 2021, she got a call from a member of Ghani’s private security team telling her to leave the office immediately.
“They said, the Taliban is coming,” she recalled in an interview Thursday.
‘Right now, we don’t have anything’
In the wake of the Taliban’s recapture of the capital city Kabul, a contingent of University of California faculty acted quickly to provide scholars in flight, like Shahrukhi, the freedom and safety to continue their work in the United States.
Members of a UC systemwide steering committee of the international network Scholars at Risk, under the lead of UC Irvine literature Prof. Jane O. Newman, quickly raised funds to broker the safe passage of scholars and activists at risk of being persecuted.
University deans, provosts and chancellors responded to Newman’s urgent request for assistance, agreeing to house and employ refugees on their respective campuses on an interim basis.
Together, Newman and her colleagues raised some $321,000 to host four Afghan scholars at UC Irvine. A crowdsourcing campaign amassed another $75,000 from various sources throughout a six-week period. Afghan scholars were identified in short order and brought to California universities and institutions.
“It was very quick — this is what happens when there’s a catastrophe in the headlines,” Newman said of the robust immediate response.
Shahrukhi, the first evacuee to arrive at UC Irvine in December 2021, found work in the university’s Gender and Sexuality Studies department. When that one-year assignment ended, the fluent Farsi speaker transitioned to Persian studies in the School of Humanities.
“I’m lucky that I got this chance,” she said. “Before the Taliban came, we had every freedom in Afghanistan, the same as the U.S. But right now, we don’t have anything.”
Raising funds, maintaining interest
Newman says providing refuge for international scholars to live and work is mutually beneficial, as the academicians have been embedded into course offerings, projects and initiatives that allow them to share their academic work and personal experiences with students across programs.
“It’s not just humanitarian aid — we’re also investing in the future of our institutions by bringing in people who are accomplished in their own right,” she said.
However, more than one year since the Afghan scholars began arriving on the Irvine campus, and as conditions in their native country continue to deteriorate, their fate from this point forward is uncertain.
Newman continues to raise funds through the initial crowdfunding campaign, the UCI Afghanistan Emergency Response Fund, and convey to administrators across the UC system the importance of continuing to support the program.
A two-day conference — “Refuge at Risk: Concepts, Infrastructures, Futures,” hosted by the University of California Humanities Research Institute — took place Thursday and Friday on the UC Irvine campus.
It convened scholars who have fled conflicts in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iran, Republic of Cameroon and Ivory Coast with representatives from hosting institutions to discuss best practices, challenges and securing needed resources to build upon the work done so far.
Ann McCall, a provost with Xavier University of Louisiana and chair of the U.S. section of the Scholars at Risk Network, in a keynote address Thursday welcomed participating scholars.
“We’re lucky to have you, even under bad circumstances,” McCall said, invoking one of the five “values” of Scholars at Risk. “[This is] a social responsibility value, it’s what we owe to each other, in good times and in bad times.”
Participating in the conference was Hashmat Nadirpor, one of UCI’s four scholars.
Nadirpor, 38, was working in Afghanistan as a lawyer and rule of law expert on a project sponsored by the German foreign ministry when he was forced to evacuate. He fled with his wife and young daughter to Germany and was looking for work when he learned about Scholars at Risk.
Since his arrival last April, Nadirpor has taken a position as a visiting associate project science for UC Irvine’s School of Law, where he helped launch the Afghanistan Human Rights Project.
An initiative of the law school’s International Justice Clinic, the project monitors human rights conditions in Afghanistan and assumes an advocacy role, producing research and findings that build a case, for example, for enforcing international protections.
The project’s first research note “Afghanistan Human Rights Review #1: Arbitrary Detention,” was published in August.
“When we arrived here, we were thinking about how useful we could be to the country,” Nadirpor said Thursday. “[Now], we’re in contact with organizations that work with human rights who have contacts with people in Afghanistan.
“We cooperate and collaborate with them in their work, and we independently write papers and do analysis through the lens of international human rights and try to advocate from afar.”
His knowledge of what’s happening in Afghanistan, its impact on people and the legal system is something he shares with law students working on projects related to the war-torn nation.
Nadirpor lives in faculty housing with his wife and their 5-year-old child, who attends preschool. UCI provided housing arrangements for at-risk scholars for 12 months, but what will happen to Nadirpor, his family and his work when that term runs out in April is unknown.
“We’re working on finding ways the faculty or school can find some funding,” he said, “but I have to think about what’s next.”
For Newman, the long-term goal is coalescing the political will and interest to keep the scholarship going.
“For our particular scholars, we need funding,” she said Wednesday. “Anybody from Afghanistan or Iran knows things have not settled down and have only gotten worse. None of this has gone away just because it’s not in the headlines.”
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