Jewish Pitt professor helping bring Afghan scholars to Pittsburgh
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Jewish Pitt professor helping bring Afghan scholars to Pittsburgh

“I’m going like gangbusters, trying to get support for this because people will forget about Afghanistan, I fear,” she said.

Omar Sadr (left), Jennifer Murtazashvili and Zalmai Nishat at a conference in Afghanistan. Photo provided by Jennifer Murtazashvili.
Omar Sadr (left), Jennifer Murtazashvili and Zalmai Nishat at a conference in Afghanistan. Photo provided by Jennifer Murtazashvili.

Omar Sadr felt beset from all sides.

The ethnic Tajik scholar living in Afghanistan had been an outspoken critic of the corruption of the country’s government and what he called its “ethnocentrism and ethnic chauvinism.” At the same time, the Taliban was steadily advancing toward Kabul — where Sadr lived with his family — killing human rights activists, government bureaucrats, professors and media members in urban centers where they gained control.

Things became bleaker after the United States-Taliban agreement was finalized in February 2020, setting a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.

“We were warning in different academic debates and media debates that the Taliban’s intention was not a political settlement,” Sadr told the Chronicle. “Rather, they wanted what they call a ‘final victory,’ but we were not taken seriously.”

Leading up to the fall of Kabul on July 15, Sadr said that “social life became suffocated,” and that he feared for his safety and that of his family.

He was cautioned that he might be a target of the terrorist organization or those sympathetic to the government who were unhappy with his criticism. He was urged to change his daily travel. He began altering his routine, forgoing his car for public transportation, bikes and travel by foot. He also was told to consider leaving the country.

The academic, who has a Ph.D. in international relations, said the limitations put in place to combat COVID-19 helped because he was able to work from home, but other restrictions went beyond movement.

“I could not speak freely,” he said. “Freedom of expression and freedom of thought were really coming under threat.”

Sadr said he was committed to the struggle of his people and wanted to continue to protest and fight until the last possible moment, when the Taliban began entering Kabul. That struggle, he said, is why he didn’t have a plan to leave the country before being forced to flee.

Once it was apparent that he could no longer stay in Afghanistan, Sadr decided to head to India, the only country aside from Turkey where Afghans could easily enter with a passport.

As the Taliban was taking control of Kabul and citizens were trying to find a way to the airport, Sadr went to the Indian embassy — only to learn that the country had misplaced his passport. His options of escape disappeared while the office looked for his travel documents.

Eventually, the Indian government offered Sadr safe passage to Delhi. While there, he was able to apply for a U.S. visa and learned he had been granted a fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh.

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, the director of the university’s Center for Governance and Markets, has focused her work on Central Asia and Afghanistan for the last quarter-century — she refers to herself as a “-stan person.”

Murtazashvili, who grew up in Squirrel Hill and is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom, met Sadr in her travels to Afghanistan, calling him one of the “brightest stars, the most eminent social scientist” in the country. She became concerned for the fate of her friend during the spring of 2021 as she watched with horror the Taliban’s targeted assassination campaign against intellectuals.

She began reaching out to various organizations, including the Scholar Rescue Fund, to see if it could help get Sadr out of Afghanistan. SRF is the only global program that arranges and funds fellowships for threatened and displaced scholars at partnering higher education institutions worldwide.

Murtazashvili said SRF officials told her that before she reached out to them, Afghanistan hadn’t even been on their radar.

“Because the U.S. government and others were sending so much assistance to Afghanistan, the idea of bringing people here while we were sending so much money there seemed unfathomable,” she told the Chronicle.

It was through the SRF that Sadr was eventually able to gain a fellowship and come to the U.S. with his wife and daughter.

For Murtazashvili, helping her friend escape the Taliban was only one piece in a much larger puzzle. She next turned her attention to other Afghan scholars and intellectuals still in the renamed Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

She approached Pitt leadership saying that she wanted to bring others to America.

“They said, ‘Fine, but we don’t have a budget for this, so you have to find funding,’” Murtazashvili recalled.

With university support, The Afghanistan Project was formed as an initiative of the Center for Governance Markets, a global policy research center housed within the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at Pitt as an international hub for Afghanistan-related research and policy work.

The Scholar Research Fund is also a program partner, Murtazashvili said, adding that she envisions reaching out to additional organizations that can help provide social services for the refugees.

Murtazashvili has already secured an anonymous gift of $250,000 to help fund the resettlement work and is working to find other donors and apply for various grants. She said it costs approximately $120,000 to bring each person to Pittsburgh.

Murtazashvili said there are four scholars confirmed to come to Pittsburgh so far, including Sadr.

“Two are stuck in Afghanistan, one is starting as a Ph.D. student in January,” she said. “The university supported her.”

She is working to secure the funding to bring over four more scholars who have already been identified, and hopes to work with Pitt to bring over many more.

Murtazashvili understands the need to help academics now, while Afghanistan is still part of the news cycle.

“I’m going like gangbusters, trying to get support for this because people will forget about Afghanistan, I fear,” she said. “These people are making the decision now about what to do with the rest of their lives. That’s why there’s an urgency to support people now.”

Both Murtazashvili and Sadr stressed the temporary status of those coming to Pittsburgh, noting that, eventually, they would like to return to Afghanistan when the situation allows.

“Ultimately, [the Taliban] cannot rule Afghanistan for a long time,” Sadr said. “They have the recipe of disaster for themselves. How can you expect fundamentalist insurgent terrorists to rule — they can’t do it. They’re not made for governance. The Taliban can’t rule forever. The struggle for a better and free society continues. If Kabul is liberated, I wish to return because I can contribute more.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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