Fazel Ahadi

It took Fazel Ahadi and his family more than a year to reach Chicago after the fall of Kabul. (Photography by John Zich)

Out of the woods

Scholars at Risk offers threatened academics a place to rebuild their lives and continue their work.

When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan’s capital city on August 15, 2021, Fazel Ahadi was teaching a film class at Kabul University. Most of his 30 or so students were women, and the group sat nervously in their seats, fear flooding their faces. Phones pinged as students’ parents called and texted, urging their children to come home. Ahadi, who had cofounded the university’s film department more than a decade earlier, faced a window that looked out onto the campus. There he saw a chaotic scene: swarms of people running away and frantically speaking into their phones.

Ahadi, a well-known screenwriter, poet, playwright, and scholar in Afghanistan who had openly criticized the Taliban, was frozen in disbelief. “We truly believed that Kabul would not fall because the US military was still in control,” he says, speaking through a translator. “We could not believe the US would abandon us.” When a fleeing student confirmed that the Taliban had arrived in the city, the professor understood that he and his family were no longer safe.

Over the next several days Ahadi burned or buried his library of books that criticized the Taliban—including 200 copies of his own account of anti-Taliban fighters from his home province of Panjshir, a long-standing anti-Taliban stronghold. Abandoning most of their belongings, he, his wife, and their five children spent a few days at the Kabul airport, hoping to get on a plane that would evacuate them from the country. But on August 26, 2021, when a suicide bomber killed around 170 Afghans and 13 US service members at the airport, Ahadi determined the family needed another way out.

One source of hope came in a phone call from the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose award-winning films include Kandahar (2001) and Marghe and Her Mother (2019). The two had never met, but Ahadi had heard from colleagues that Makhmalbaf was helping scholars find ways to leave Afghanistan. Makhmalbaf offered to connect Ahadi with the Scholars at Risk program, an international network of academics who would help him get to a university in France or America.

Nearly seven thousand miles away, Christine Mehring, a University of Chicago art history professor, was preparing for Autumn Quarter.

In August 2021 Mehring was nearing the end of a research sabbatical and putting finishing touches on an essay about the land artist Walter De Maria when she received an email from an old friend and colleague at Harvard. The email detailed an ongoing effort by Scholars at Risk (SAR) to bring five Afghan filmmakers and cinema scholars to universities in the United States. It included short résumés for each person. All had created work that the Taliban would consider a threat to its reputation and power. The email ended: “And is there any way that the University of Chicago might be able to take one of them?”

“I looked at this email and was really stunned and overwhelmed,” recalls Mehring, the Mary L. Block Professor of Art History and in the College. “I was trying to figure out how I could possibly help. I just started sending emails.”

In doing so, Mehring joined the SAR network of academics across 500 universities spread throughout 40 countries who work to create posts for threatened scholars. While its office has been housed at New York University since 2003, SAR was founded in 1999 at the University of Chicago.

The effort began with Katie Trumpener, then associate professor in the University’s Germanic studies department and now a professor of comparative literature and English at Yale. Concerned about the political unrest around the world at that time, especially in Algeria, Trumpener found herself thinking about the Emergency Rescue Committee, an evacuation operation during World War II that helped some 2,000 artists and writers—Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst, and Marc Chagall among them—escape from German-occupied France to Spain.

In a letter to Jacqueline Bhabha, then director of the University’s Human Rights Program (now the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights), Trumpener expressed regret that while Jewish and other refugee scholars were given a safe haven at the University of Chicago in the mid-20th century, “there is little chance today of equally brilliant professors from Algeria or Kenya or East Timor or Bosnia or any other part of the world under intellectual and political threat finding their way to Chicago.” But, Trumpener wrote, “I wonder if the University couldn’t actually do more to increase the chances of this happening?”

As a result, Bhabha helped launch the first Scholars at Risk office. The founding core mission of the organization was to identify scholars facing threats where they lived and to find them temporary positions in places where they could continue their work in safety. Carrying out this mission would include providing scholars with support, including legal advice and referrals as well as career guidance.

Some two decades later, as Mehring began to explore how she might help facilitate a position for Ahadi at UChicago, more than 1,600 displaced scholars had found temporary refuge at universities across the globe thanks to SAR. “I was so in awe and humbled,” says Mehring, to find that this effort started at the University. “I kept thinking, This is the University of Chicago. We stand like no other institution in this country for freedom of expression, especially for scholars. We should be leading this national effort.”

Christine Mehring
Art history professor Christine Mehring spearheaded efforts to bring film scholar Fazel Ahadi and his family to Chicago. (Photography by Jason Smith)

Canvassing the UChicago community, Mehring reached out to the dean of the Humanities Division, faculty members at the Oriental Institute (now the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures) and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Mehring also sent a note to Daniel Morgan, PhD’07, then chair of the Department of Cinema and Media Studies. She hoped Morgan and his department might employ Ahadi as a visiting lecturer. Morgan, moved by Ahadi’s circumstances and by Makhmalbaf’s endorsement of his work, brought the request to the department’s faculty for a vote.

In a unanimous showing, the department decided to create a temporary lecturer position for Ahadi. The University could now sponsor a US visa for him—but this was only the first hurdle. Funds were needed to cover Ahadi’s salary, plane tickets, and living expenses. Despite being an experienced fundraiser, Mehring was daunted.

The College and Humanities Division agreed to pay the bulk of Ahadi’s salary; Morgan secured funding for the family’s travel from the University’s office for global strategy and initiatives. Then Mehring had to figure out how to get things ready for the family to start their lives in Chicago. For a better sense of what they might need, she reached out to the Hyde Park Refugee Project, a volunteer-run organization that helps new refugees with the resettlement process. To Mehring’s relief and gratitude, the organization identified an apartment for the Ahadis, negotiated the rent, and contacted local schools. She then got in touch with friends and acquaintances interested in film and, crucially, several art collectors and philanthropists she’d met during her years serving as chair of the art history department.

Within 48 hours, Mehring had raised the entire sum needed for the Ahadis’ living expenses. A particularly generous gift came from Karla Scherer, AM’99. “It sounded like a family that I’d really like to support,” says Scherer, remembering Mehring’s email. “And the fact that the University was bringing scholars from abroad was a wonderful thing. … Every hand that can reach to those who need help ought to.”

Meanwhile, Ahadi and his family remained stuck in Afghanistan, in constant fear for their lives. Every day fewer flights left the Kabul airport, and every day Ahadi worried that their chances of leaving the country were diminishing.

To stay one step ahead of the Taliban, Ahadi moved his family several times. They stayed for three weeks with his in-laws, then spent several weeks in hiding with about 60 other families in an abandoned hotel in Mazar-e-Sharif. Fearing he could be tracked, he replaced his phone’s SIM card and used the new one only sparingly within the family, communicating with others through email and WhatsApp. As time passed, he heard that Kabul University had reopened but few people had returned to campus. He also heard rumors that some returnees were lured back by the Taliban, only to be killed when they arrived.

One night in Mazar-e-Sharif, Ahadi’s wife and children slept while he lay awake worrying about “our unknown future.” Checking his email, he found a new message from the German government. “Congratulations,” it began. “The German government has accepted you and your family.”

The email advised him to get to the German embassy in Pakistan as soon as they could. There they would be safe while awaiting transport to Germany. “I thought I saw this situation in a dream,” he recalls. “I was very happy.” He continued sleepless that night, but for a new reason.

After taking two days to carefully confirm through the embassy that the email was legitimate, Ahadi and his family made their way to the Kabul airport one last time.

On February 24, 2022, they departed Kabul for Pakistan. Leaving was both difficult and a great relief, Ahadi says. “We called our family and said our goodbyes.”

The Ahadis arrived in Germany among a wave of refugees that overwhelmed the German immigration system. Reaching Cologne in March 2022, they were housed in a converted shipping container where they shared a four-room space with another family of seven. For eight months they lived like that. Ahadi worked all the while, with guidance from Mehring and others at the University, to secure US visas.

In November 2022 Ahadi traveled to the US consulate in Frankfurt and received the long-awaited visas. He was thrilled. The family flew to Chicago the next month. When they walked through the doors at O’Hare International Airport, Mehring was waiting. “It was really emotional for me,” she recalls. “I was so happy, but I was also so worried for them. The people at the Hyde Park Refugee Project, they had always warned me, ‘This is just the start, Christine, this is just the beginning. There’s so much more to come.’”

Over the past eight months the whole family had learned German, Mehring’s native language, and the children were fluent. Mehring chatted with them as she led the family to her borrowed minivan. After they piled in, she asked what music they liked, and the children said, “German music! German music!” Mehring turned on German rocker Nena’s 1983 hit “99 Luftballons” and cranked up the sound. The whole car buzzed as the Ahadis took in the Chicago skyline, a view that grew bigger and smaller again as they wound their way home to Hyde Park.

In the time since Mehring first learned about the Scholars at Risk network and its history, the University’s SAR program has become more formalized. Spurred by a request from Kathleen Cavanaugh, the executive director of the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights, and law professor Aziz Huq, who had experience helping Afghans evacuate after the fall of Kabul, then University provost Ka Yee C. Lee formed a University of Chicago SAR committee in March 2022. The committee also included Harris School of Public Policy professor Chris Blattman and vice provost for academic affairs and linguistics professor Jason Merchant.

“Our task was to be the center point,” says Cavanaugh, who has spoken to many faculty members hoping to help at-risk academics in both Afghanistan and Ukraine. “We began to more methodically review applications that were coming in and tried to set some of the same criteria that the national SAR [network] would require.”

Those criteria include providing the scholar with a visiting lectureship position, a dedicated workspace, and a faculty host, and ensuring the scholar is able to contribute to academic life on campus. Once an applicant is approved, the UChicago SAR committee brings the recommendation to the appropriate dean’s office, which then works with the provost’s office to create a temporary faculty appointment and secure any necessary visa documents. “We processed so many applications,” recalls Cavanaugh. “But not every one materialized. Some people simply decided to stay. Others found positions closer to home, and others faced complications with visas.”

Over the last year and a half, Cavanaugh says, the SAR committee has helped place eight scholars on campus. Among them is Ukrainian poet and translator Oksana Maksymchuk.

Oksana Maksymchuk
Oksana Maksymchuk, a bilingual poet and a translator, is finishing a book of poems in English about the war in Ukraine. (Photography by John Zich)

One humid day this past summer, Maksymchuk sits at the edge of a couch surrounded by philosophy books and Leonard Cohen records. The courtyard outside looks particularly lush after a recent rainfall. A deaf and blind cat occasionally plops herself down on the rug in the middle of the floor. Nothing here belongs to Maksymchuk, who recently arrived in Hyde Park, where she’ll spend the academic year pursuing her work and teaching at UChicago. Almost all of her own belongings remain in an apartment in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, her birthplace, where she was living with her husband and son in February 2022.

The whole family left Ukraine 10 days before Russia invaded. Maksymchuk’s husband, Max Rosochinsky, is a Crimean poet and translator who frequently collaborates with her. They left at the urging of artist and writer friends who believed they would be at heightened risk in the event of a Russian occupation. Among the reasons: their professional expertise in and dedication to the Ukrainian language, and their connections to the United States.

Maksymchuk had previously spent many years of her life in this country, moving from Lviv to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, at 15 with her mother and staying until she graduated from college at Bryn Mawr. She returned to study ancient philosophy at Northwestern, getting her PhD in 2013, and then taught for six years at the University of Arkansas.

Maksymchuk also was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant that supported her and her husband’s 2017 collection of translated works by Ukrainian poets, Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine (Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University with the Borderlines Foundation for Academic Studies and Academic Studies Press). Having received money from the US government could label her a “foreign agent” under Russian rule, Maksymchuk’s friends believed, and put her family at risk. “They said I would be a target if Russians ended up occupying the city,” she recalls. Still, the decision to leave was agonizing.

Even before Russia invaded, when it was amassing troops at the border, Maksymchuk says, preparing or planning to flee the country “was, at the time, considered to be really shameful.” She and her husband started buying supplies for a potential invasion, including tourniquets. But people were undertaking such preparations discreetly, lest they be perceived as showing panic and hopelessness. They were “making fun of each other for being overly cautious,” with caution seen as being weak, and a betrayal.

Judgment was, however, softened for those with young children. “A lot of people decided that there was a simple heuristic,” Maksymchuk says, “that if you have a child and you are a caregiver, then you have to make that decision”—to leave—“for another person.”

One day that February Maksymchuk was writing in a shared workspace overlooking Brygidki Prison, where the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem had been held by the Germans as a young man and forced to remove bodies of executed prisoners. Against the backdrop of alarming reports from the border, she had been reading Lem’s diaries of life under German occupation and thinking of “awful things potentially happening.” On one hand, this seemed far-fetched. On the other, her country’s—even her family’s—history included many instances of terrible things actually coming to pass. At 6, her father survived the destruction of his family’s entire village, a formative event that affects his children too.

Maksymchuk’s surroundings that day seemed “so Edenic, and very far removed from anything that was happening on the news,” she remembers. The contrast struck her as ominous, a “very uncanny situation where the two realities don’t converge.” She called her husband, and they made “a really quick decision that we were going to leave for 10 days and wait to see how things would turn out. We just left everything and took little backpacks with us.”

They boarded a train for Budapest, Hungary. Having lived there before, they could find a place to stay for a few days without making arrangements ahead of time, a commitment they didn’t feel prepared to make. Leaving from a near-empty station, they told a Ukrainian border guard on the train that they were going on vacation. This October marked 20 months since their departure.

During that time Maksymchuk has lived in Hungary, Poland, Austria, and the United States. She has spent a lot of time reflecting and a lot of time writing—in English. Having another language to process what’s happening in Ukraine “gives you a sort of illusion of temporal distance,” she says, with “the strangeness of the idiom,” rather than the passage of time, lending a mediating factor to help make sense of the experiences. The poems in English that she has been writing since 2021 will be published next spring in a new book, Still City (Carcanet Press).

For Maksymchuk and Rosochinsky, poetry and war have long been intertwined. “For us this has been going on since 2014,” when Rosochinsky’s country of Crimea was occupied by Russia, she says. In the years following, they read thousands of Ukrainian poems about war to prepare their translated anthology Words for War.

Maksymchuk believes that poetry has an important role in unmooring and terrifying times. “A lot of suffering is exacerbated when a person cannot find meaning in it, when it’s just this chaotic experience that they are facing,” she says. “The poet’s work is to make sense of the suffering, to make it bearable, and to develop language in which people can heal themselves.”

Translation, in her view, also offers a powerful microphone to her country’s poets. “For these Ukrainian authors, it’s often this sensation of speaking into the void,” says Maksymchuk, who in addition to her own collection will soon publish a fourth volume of translated Ukrainian poetry. “They don’t know who is going to hear them, so having their work translated is really empowering.”

Her presence on campus widens the audience for such works to include UChicago students and faculty. “Oksana’s activities seem really crucial to get the word out about people’s experiences of war,” says Rachel Galvin, an associate professor of English, who nominated Maksymchuk for the SAR program. “She can speak about cultural life in conditions of war and what it means to document what is occurring, making poetry a kind of first draft of history.” In Chicago she can communicate this to people beyond Ukraine “in a way that no one else really can in the University community.”

Maksymchuk will teach an advanced workshop this winter on poetry and crisis. In June she will return to Europe, where her husband will have a fellowship in Stuttgart, Germany. Maksymchuk hopes they can return home eventually. There is still pressure on those who left to come back, to “stand together” and put money back into the economy. Her sister, who left around the same time, is back in Lviv. The call of home is strong—family, personal history, the apartment the couple had been renovating in hopes of being in Lviv for a long time. “We don’t know what it’s going to be like after the war,” she says, “but we are very excited to move back and rebuild” when that’s possible.

Ahadi, for his part, does not discuss plans to return to Afghanistan. It’s difficult for the film scholar to imagine such a future. Rather, he is seeking a lawyer to help with his application for asylum in the United States, a process that tens of thousands of Afghan refugees have weathered since the fall of Kabul. Mehring and members of the Hyde Park Refugee Project are helping him navigate the system, for which he is grateful: “People have been helping us without any expectation, only out of a sense of humanitarianism.”

He does, however, intend to bring the memory of his Afghanistan to UChicago. Still learning English, he cannot yet teach classes, but he has given four lectures. Two, on the history of Afghan cinema and on women Afghan filmmakers, were given in English with a translator. The other two, on contemporary Afghan poets and Ahadi’s own poetry, in Farsi for an audience of faculty and students in the Persian Language Program. This year he hopes to begin building an archive at UChicago of Afghan films from the two decades between Taliban regimes, a body of work that is little known in America. Morgan, who works closely with Ahadi on his University projects, says, “For many of us, it’s been our first real introduction to Afghan cinema. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to have a road map.”

For Ahadi, sharing Afghan films on campus is also an act of cultural and historical preservation. In Afghanistan under a pro-Western government, he was a leading voice in a thriving film industry; now, most of the films he championed have been destroyed by the Taliban regime. That makes sharing his story even more important. “I want people here to know what kinds of challenges filmmakers in Afghanistan face to make these films,” he says. “I believe the most powerful weapon against the Taliban is film.”

Welcoming scholars like Ahadi, says Merchant, is part of the University’s foundation and its future. “The University of Chicago has tried to help scholars fleeing wars since the beginning of our time, and both faculty and students benefit,” he says. “I don’t expect any lack of crises in the future, unfortunately, and that means that people who are great at doing scholarship are going to be at risk. We will be ready to help them when that happens.”

Elly Fishman, LAB’06, AB’10, is a writer in Milwaukee. Her book Refugee High: Coming of Age in America (The New Press, 2021) comes out in paperback this fall.

Updated 11.13.2023 to correct the source of funding for the Ahadis travel to the United States.

Updated 12.04.2023 to note that Ahadi traveled to the US consulate in Frankfurt to collect the family’s visas.