Jewish Pitt professor leads effort to help refugees and threatened scholars
Civic engagementUniveristy of Pittsburgh Center for Governance and Markets

Jewish Pitt professor leads effort to help refugees and threatened scholars

The center has begun funding scholars inside Ukraine who could not or would not leave the country.

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili (Photo by Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili (Photo by Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)

Mirwais Parsa knew he had to flee Afghanistan.

Parsa, a macroeconomics researcher, had served the former minister of finance under the government of internationally backed President Ashraf Ghani. Working in Kabul, the country’s capital and largest city, he also lectured part-time at nearby Dunya University.

Then, on Aug. 15, 2021, after the last U.S. forces left the capital, the Taliban marched into Kabul and seized power.

With the U.S. embassy shuttered in Afghanistan, Parsa trekked to neighboring Pakistan and stayed there for two months as he waited for officials to process his passport.

He and his fiancée went into hiding when they returned and eventually paid the equivalent of $2,000 on the black market for exit visas.

“I was pretty sure things would go smoothly, but they didn’t,” Parsa told the Chronicle. “It was an absolutely terrible situation.”

He arrived in Pittsburgh on June 20, 2022. Today, he lives with his wife in Squirrel Hill and does research through the University of Pittsburgh.

His story is one of many.

On Sept. 1, the American Political Science Association awarded the Center for Governance and Markets in the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) a civic engagement award for its work supporting refugees and threatened scholars.

The 2023 Outstanding Civic Engagement Project Award comes less than two years after the center launched its Afghan Asylum Project, an effort to help Afghans who supported American civilian and military efforts overseas apply for asylum in the U.S.

The project recruited more than 100 faculty, staff and student volunteers to help more than 6,500 Afghans who approached the center for assistance, Pitt officials said.

The award also recognized Pitt’s efforts to assist threatened scholars through the Afghanistan Project, which helped preserve the Afghan intellectual community by bringing 12 academics — like Parsa — to Pittsburgh. The university provided the new researchers with at least two years of funding to continue their work here.

But the story does not end with Afghanistan or Iran, places where the new scholars initially were rooted.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, the Center for Governance and Markets raised more than $100,000 to aid scholars there.

The center did not simply replicate its program for Afghan scholars, though, in Ukraine, center founder Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili said.

Instead, it began funding scholars inside Ukraine for those who could not or would not leave the country, Murtazashvili said. Most Ukrainian men are not allowed to leave the country due to military mobilization.

The Center for Governance and Markets also is supporting three students from Ukraine and one from Afghanistan to study at Pitt’s law school this year, officials said.

Murtazashvili knows life on the ground in Ukraine.

In the last week of August and the first days of September, the Squirrel Hill woman, who is Jewish, traveled to Kyiv via plane and train to kick off a construction and recovery initiative at the Kyiv School of Economics.

Murtazashvili is working alongside economics professor Tymofiy Mylovanov, who returned to his native Ukraine before the war. Mylovanov teaches classes at Pitt while leading the Kyiv School of Economics.

“The war is everywhere,” Murtazashvili, who last visited Ukraine about five years ago, said. “It was really super-inspiring, though, how positive people are despite everything … There’s trauma, no doubt, but they know change is in their hands.”

Ukrainians have mocked invading Russian forces by filling Kyiv’s streets with bombed-out Russian tanks — a bitter reference to the Soviet-era parades that once filled the country.

Murtazashvili said Ukrainians scholars she met “got very mad at this idea of ‘rescuing them.’” Many do not want the nation to face a brain-drain after the war.

Despite some sleepless nights — Murtazashvili spent at least two full evenings in a bomb shelter in her hotel’s basement — she said it was not hard to remain optimistic in the face of adversity.
“There’s a real sense of social unity, social cohesion — and everyone is doing their part,” Murtazashvili said. “You really get the sense that people are on the same page.”

“We never thought we would be doing this in our own work in this way,” she added. “It is with great compassion that we throw ourselves into this pursuit and accept this recognition.”
Pittsburgh is growing on Parsa.

“Pittsburgh is a very nice city; it’s not too big, not too small,” he said. “And the people around us are wonderful. They’re supportive.”

“The University of Pittsburgh also has been super-generous toward the people of Afghanistan,” he added. “They tried to rescue a lot of people, both those in academics or those who worked in government.” PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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