Omar Sadr in suit standing outside with arms folded
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This Pitt effort is relocating Afghan scholars to the U.S.

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  • Graduate School of Public and International Affairs

Even before the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August, Omar Sadr’s life was in danger.

At only 32 years old, he’s an accomplished academic and one of Afghanistan’s most beloved public intellectuals. Unfortunately, what so endears him to everyday Afghans — namely, his critiques of both Afghanistan’s former government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, and the now-ruling Taliban — has also made him a target.

In the leadup to Taliban rule, as threats and targeted killings of Afghan intellectuals increased, Sadr restricted his media and public appearances and began planning to leave the country.

One of the people he reached out to for help was Pitt’s Jennifer Murtazashvili, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) and the director of its Center for Governance and Markets.

Murtazashvili has spent her 25-year career exploring questions of governance, political economy, security and development with a geographical focus on Central and South Asia and the former Soviet Union. She and Sadr got to know each other through a joint research project focused on strengthening diversity and pluralism in deeply divided societies like Afghanistan.

In response to Sadr’s request for help, Murtazashvili founded the Afghanistan Project, an effort to help secure passage to the U.S. for Afghanistan-based scholars and provide a safe place for them to continue their research and advocacy in exile. 

Sadr arrived in the U.S. in October. He is now a senior research fellow with the center and will helm the Afghanistan Project.

“I have two goals,” he said. “The Afghanistan Project seeks to elevate Afghan voices and to make this the place for people in Afghanistan and around the world to look for sound policy guidance and research.”

Sadr’s journey to the U.S. and position were also supported by IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE-SRF), a program that arranges and co-funds fellowships for threatened and displaced scholars at partnering higher education institutions worldwide. According to Murtazashvili, “This could not have happened without the partnership of IIE-SRF, which provided essential support in helping us bring Omar Sadr to Pittsburgh.”

An anonymous $250,000 donation coupled with funding from the Scholar Rescue Fund and the University’s Pittsburgh Network for Threatened Scholars also made Sadr’s relocation possible. Overall, the Afghanistan Project aims to raise millions more to help bring other at-risk Afghanistan professors to safety at Pitt. Sadr and Murtazashvili expect that three other scholars will join the project in the coming months. Several, like Sadr, are supported by IIE-SRF.

The University of Pittsburgh is a host partner of the IIE-SRF, an organization that arranges and funds fellowships for threatened and displaced scholars at higher education institutions worldwide. Sadr received a fellowship from IIE-SRF to support his position at CGM and the Afghanistan Project. The IIE-SRF provided him with logistical support, professional development, relocation assistance and visa coordination.

Overall, the Afghanistan Project aims to raise millions more to help bring other at-risk Afghanistan professors to safety at Pitt. Sadr and Murtazashvili expect that three other scholars will join the project in the coming months.

“Dr. Jennifer Murtazashvili and the Center for Governance Markets have demonstrated both deep humanity in their work to secure passage for Afghans in the midst of the fall of the Afghan government and an inspiring vision for the Afghanistan Project — bringing together top Afghan scholars to examine critical governance and policy issues that will shape the future of their country,” said GSPIA Dean Carissa Schively Slotterback.

“The Afghanistan Project seeks to preserve the academic and intellectual spirit that blossomed in Afghanistan,” said Murtazashvili. “This initiative is helping preserve the exiled intellectual community and help it evolve into something new.”

Leaving Afghanistan

Sadr’s last memories of Kabul are of its rapid unraveling.

On the afternoon of Aug. 15, Sadr biked from the west side of the city to the Indian Embassy in the Green Zone, Kabul's diplomatic quarter. He, his wife, Rashmi, and his infant daughter, Tomyris, were slated to leave the next day on a plane for India where he’d recently secured short-term visas.

Earlier that morning, the Taliban had entered the city, the last urban center to be usurped by the militant forces. At the news of the takeover, chaos erupted. Afghans flooded the streets, desperate either to return home or to make their way to Kabul’s airport in hopes of leaving the country.

By the time Sadr left for the Green Zone that afternoon, the city’s storefronts were barricaded, and the police and security contractors who once guarded the embassies were gone.

[Read more about how Pitt people have been helping with Afghan resettlement.]

After his visit to the embassy, Sadr had planned to return home with his family’s passports and visas. However, when he arrived, he was notified that the passports were misplaced and couldn’t be found. An ambassador told him that his wife and daughter should come to the embassy as soon as possible to be evacuated. Rashmi packed a suitcase and arrived 30 minutes later.

The Sadrs spent two days in the embassy until the Taliban finally allowed Indian embassy employees and their associates to leave the country. On Aug. 17, Sadr and his family left Afghanistan and arrived 12 hours later in Delhi. There was no room on the plane for their suitcase, all they had was what they were wearing and a small piece of luggage filled with their daughter’s clothes. 

Education’s effects

Growing up, Sadr’s family emphasized the value of education. His immediate family all attended college in Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union and held civil service jobs in Afghanistan. In 2001, the defeat of the Taliban by the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance and the installation of a democratic government ushered in new educational opportunities. Schools and universities were established to educate generations of citizens motivated to rebuild their country.

Sadr completed his undergraduate degree at Kabul University and earned a master’s degree and PhD from South Asian University in India. He returned to Kabul at the end of 2017 and joined the Afghanistan Institute for Strategic Studies. Currently, he is an assistant professor of political science with the American University of Afghanistan. His publications cover subjects such as negotiating cultural diversity in Afghanistan, the politics of literary censorship and the crises facing the republic in Afghanistan.

Despite earning the ire of former President Ghani for critiquing his government’s approach to multiculturalism, Sadr remains deeply invested in supporting his country’s burgeoning democracy, and he is committed to challenging the Taliban’s rule.

“Because the Taliban is a totalitarian movement, they are not politically accountable to anyone,” Sadr said. “Activists, scholars and intellectuals that criticize the Taliban are at risk of extrajudicial killing. I am following several social media reports of missing people who were arrested by the Taliban. No one knows whether they are in prison or they are dead.”

From the U.S., Sadr will continue to fight against totalitarianism in his home country.


— Nichole Faina