A San Jose State University lecturer is cautiously optimistic about a program she was instrumental in starting after the fall of Kabul that will bring Afghan scholars to the U.S.
“We’ve raised close to $400,000 to help evacuate and bring scholars over and have them here at our universities,” said Halima Kazem-Stojanovic, a journalism instructor and member of San Jose State’s Human Rights Institute, which, with the University of California, Berkeley’s Human Rights Center, established Afghan Scholars at Risk.
So far, about 150 scholars are vetted, and about a dozen universities are ready to offer jobs to qualified Afghan instructors. But because of delays with getting visas at U.S. embassies, only two scholars, both referred from San Jose State, have arrived — one at UC Berkeley, the other at the University of Texas at El Paso.
About ten individuals are in other countries, including Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, the Netherlands, Germany and Albania, awaiting interviews toward obtaining a J-1, or foreign scholar, visa for the United States.
Kazem-Stojanovic hopes that the program’s “at risk” designation will speed up the process of getting the educators out of Afghanistan, where they are in danger for their lives, targeted by the Taliban for the reporting and public-facing work they have done.
“It’s not just that they’re coming to share their knowledge. They have to leave, otherwise they’re going to get killed,” she said.
The project also includes a program under which the scholars will “create considerable journalistic and research content on the lives and experiences of the Afghan diaspora during and following the (American) war,” according to William Armaline, director of San Jose State’s Human Rights Institute. Plans are to build an Afghan immigrant narratives archive combining work by the visiting scholars with contributions from the Afghan community in Santa Clara County.
The Afghan Scholars at Risk project’s seeds were planted hours after the Taliban took over on Aug. 15 last year, when Kazem-Stojanovic, who taught journalism in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2014, was inundated with messages from former colleagues and activists there.
Heartbroken, she contacted colleagues in San Jose State’s journalism school and Department of Justice Studies asking for help. Within two weeks, a team of about 12 was working nonstop, starting to compile a database with information about individuals in need and universities interested in hiring Afghan scholars. A crowdfunding website also was established.
“I sent out the email because of my concern for the Afghan scholars I’d worked with for almost two decades in Afghanistan,” said Kazem-Stojanovic, who was born in Kabul six months after the communist coup in 1978 and came to the U.S. with her family in 1980.
Noting that the program’s organizers are volunteers, and that all money raised goes directly to the scholars, Kazem-Stojanovic added, “We’re making progress. There were a lot of ups and downs. But the fact that a couple of our J-1 applicants have arrived and interviews are starting to be scheduled at embassies, there is hope. More hope than there was maybe two months ago. We thought that scholars would arrive a lot sooner, but now we are preparing. It will likely be next academic year that they’ll arrive. Things are moving, but just very, very slowly. And what makes it difficult is that in the meantime, these individuals are in limbo.”
Kazem-Stojanovic, who wrote curriculum for journalism departments while teaching in Afghanistan, said some scholars in the program are professors she trained and worked with; others she met recently. Some already have been to the U.S.; San Jose State had a partnership with public schools in Afghanistan — Herat University in the west and Balkh University in north — in which academics studied here for six weeks.
All of the scholars must pass an English test, a requirement of the J-1 visa. Most are under 35, she said, pointing to the generation that learned English and took advantage of the last 20 years, in which, despite problems with the U.S. and Afghan governments, there were still “a lot of opportunities opening up” in the country.
As for prospects now, Kazem-Stojanovic said, “It’s more of a wait and see of what this Taliban regime — I’m not even calling it a government yet — will do there. … There’s been, already, a lot of regression. We’ve lost a lot that was gained in the last 20 years, as far as media freedom, as far as the government system, just civil society. We are now waiting to see how it resettles, how it adjusts, and how far back things are put. We don’t know at this point. It looks pretty grim, especially if you’re going to compare it to the last 20 years. Maybe the progress was too fast. … As someone who studies Afghan history, I can see the waves and cycles of similar kinds of events. But now we’re just watching and seeing what kinds of losses we’re going to have to deal with.”
Ready whenever they get here
An ongoing major concern is the need for more U.S. resources to bring Afghans here. While the Scholars at Risk program has established a relationship with the White House, the coalition working to resettle Afghans needs a boost from the State Department, Kazem Stojanovic said, “in looking at how they’re going to come in, and on which visas, and how fast they can process. … We have scholars ready to go. We have positions in many places for them. They just can’t get here.”
She also points to differences between Afghan immigration and long-term difficulties associated with the southern U.S. border. Unlike Mexico, she said, “The thing with Afghanistan is that we were at war there. This is what the consequences of our direct action in that country have caused.”
On the local level, efforts will go toward assisting those who come here to find a suitable place to live in the expensive Bay Area real estate market.
“When our scholars arrive, it would be amazing to have community help in finding housing for them. Many are coming in traumatized, with families, with children, and dorms are not the best places for them. In order to keep their appointments, so they can stay employed with us, we’re trying to use our funding for that,” Kazem-Stojanovic said, adding the UC Berkeley visiting scholar was pleased to receive home furnishings via a registry set up for her.
Donations of money, housing, household items or language support and other contributions are being accepted; those interested in giving may visit the Human Rights Institute website.