UCSD’s International Institute aims to help Afghan scholars — and their research — get to safety

Jade Guedes, co-director of UC San Diego's International Institute,
Jade Guedes, co-director of UC San Diego’s International Institute, says sponsoring refuge for an Afghan scholar is a “life and death matter.”
(Courtesy of Jade Guedes)

The International Institute at UC San Diego in La Jolla is looking to raise money to provide refuge to Afghan scholars during a “terrifying” time, its co-director says.

Jade Guedes, who also is an associate professor at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Department of Anthropology, said the institute has teamed with the Scholars at Risk Network, a nationwide human-rights program begun at New York University to advocate for foreign scholars in danger.

Nancy Postero, a professor of anthropology, co-director of the human rights and migration program at UCSD and one of the founders of the International Institute, said Scholars at Risk promotes “academic freedom all over the world,” supporting scholars in prison and providing refuge for scholars “who are in exile or in fear.”

Through the initiative, the International Institute is looking to sponsor at least one Afghan scholar seeking refuge from the recent Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.

When the Taliban were last in control of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, Guedes said, “they carried out massive human-rights violations.”

“When the Taliban regime was overthrown, a lot of international funding poured into Afghanistan,” she said. “And quite a lot of this funding was really destined to help reform higher education, among other things, and there’s been a renaissance in Afghan academia.”

With the recent resurgence of the Taliban’s power, Guedes said, “academics are really in fear for their safety. As with any type of oppressive regime, these are the people who are often first targeted because their research in many cases … is a direct criticism of the regime, [or] things like the hardest sciences could be targeted because of international collaborations.”

In 2001, she said, there were 8,000 university students in Afghanistan. In 2018, there were 170,000. Many of them were women, who are now “highly at risk.”

Guedes said Scholars at Risk received more than 500 applications from Afghan scholars.

Applicants are carefully vetted, Postero said, and are placed mostly in Europe and North America.

She said UCSD participated in the Scholars at Risk program for the first time in 2018, when “we brought a Kurdish feminist scholar from Turkey to UCSD, and she was here for actually about two years.”

Postero said bringing a foreign at-risk scholar to UCSD is “so important ... because … on the basic humanitarian side, we get to provide them refuge, we give them a place to live.”

For many Afghan scholars, “this is a life and death matter,” Guedes said. “They’re aware they’re on hit lists, and they’re in hiding and they’re trying to find ways to just physically walk out of the country.”

UCSD professor Nancy Postero says Scholars at Risk provides foreign scholars with refuge and community.
UCSD professor Nancy Postero, a co-founder of the International Institute, says Scholars at Risk provides foreign scholars with refuge and community.
(Courtesy of Nancy Postero)

Beyond personal safety, scholars “have research agendas,” Postero said. “What we do is give them the opportunity to continue being a scholar, continue being an academic, and we give them a space on campus to do their research.”

The university also provides the scholars with networks and community. “They just came out of a foreign country [and] now suddenly they’re never going to be able to go home, they’re never going to go back to Afghanistan,” Postero said.

“They now have to transition into an English-speaking world. We act as mentors and networks and support systems to help the scholar go from a freaked-out refugee to being an active, brilliant scholar again.”

Guedes said placement at UCSD might be temporary and that university personnel work to eventually transfer a scholar to a program elsewhere that aligns with his or her research focus.

In addition to working with Scholars at Risk, the International Institute supports faculty groups across multidisciplinary workshops and provides scholarships to graduate students internationally, Guedes said.

“We really represent the international community at UCSD, scholars working on international issues,” Guedes said.

She said her hope is “to see us being able to bring as many people out of Afghanistan as we possibly can. … We hope to be able to act swiftly.”

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