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 has been at San José State University for all of five months now, by way of Turkey. “Afghan women have been completely removed from the structure of [public] life in Afghanistan,” Mohammadi said.
Her work as a journalist and women’s rights activist put her in the Taliban’s target sites. She was a radio reporter for the United Nations News service for a show called “Hello, Countrymen, Countrywomen,” a popular program in Afghanistan.
“It was painful to leave everything behind,” Mohammadi said.
“I founded the Equality Social and Cultural Organization (ESCO) in 2011, which was active in supporting women journalists and strengthening their presence and media activities. I was also the owner and chief editor of Equality News Agency, based in Kabul, Afghanistan.”
Today, her research detailing the persecution of the ethnic Hazara in Afghanistan is work she could never do, let alone publicize, there. Furthermore, no non-Hazara could do this work as well as someone like Mohammadi can.
“We don’t hear stories from people, stories from victims, what situation they are living under, what’s their problems, what’s their request from the U.S., from the international community. In this way, we raise their voices,” Mohammadi said.
She’s hoping that the international community will not lose interest in Afghanistan now that the U.S. military has pulled out. But in the meantime, she and her family are able to live, safely and un-silenced.
How she got here
The program that installed Mohammadi here in the San Francisco Bay Area is the brainchild of Halima Kazem-Stojanovic, who was once a refugee herself, more than 40 years ago when Afghanistan fell to the Soviet Union.
“My family came as Afghan political refugees, in what I call the first migration of Afghans into the United States,” said Kazem-Stojanovic. The family settled in San José just before she started kindergarten.
Today, she’s an oral historian on Afghanistan at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, but for 10 years, she was a journalism and human rights professor at San José State — and a core faculty member of its Human Rights Institute.
“I've spent more of my time in Afghanistan than in the United States,” she said. “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. 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 in mid-August of 2021, 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. “A lot of them smashed their SIM cards,” she added. One photographer she knew dug a hole in his yard to bury his awards, including his Pulitzer Prize.
Kazem-Stojanovic reached out to her network in the U.S. to help Afghan academics and journalists get out of the country — but also, to help people once they arrived here. As the child of an economics professor who couldn’t teach in America, she was keenly aware that these refugees would need financial and professional support to establish themselves on this side of the Pacific. And so began the Afghan Visiting Scholars program.
“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 UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center and her own San José State. The Human Rights Institute held a press conference last May to welcome two scholars. In his introductory remarks, Director Dr. William Armaline said, “We had an opportunity to play a role, and thanks to the courage and initiative of Halima and some others, we were able to step in and play a very, very small part in this much larger crisis.”
The Afghan Visiting Scholars Program
One year later, she maintains a list of roughly 130 people waiting for academic visas, many of them in Pakistan, India and Turkey. Others are already in the U.S. on humanitarian parole, which allows them to stay for two years. How many scholars has she found placements for so far? About 15.
“Together we quickly rolled out a crowdfunding campaign 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. “Gosh, 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 UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, as well as Yale, Tennessee State and the University of Texas at El Paso.
“There's still so much need to understand this country 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 have agreed to host displaced scholars from countries where their lives are 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 conflict in Vietnam, and Kurds after the Iraq War.
“Pass the Afghan Adjustment Act,” said Kazem-Stojanovic. “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.”
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