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  • Jake Goidell

Kabul, Kyiv, Columbia

Tracing the experiences of displaced scholars at Columbia and threats to academic freedom.

By Jake Goidell

Illustration by Samia Menon

As the Taliban re-seized Afghanistan in August 2021, Professor Ajmal Sabawoon sat on a bus heading towards Kabul International Airport with his wife and four sons. The trip, which typically takes half an hour, instead lasted “three harrowing days.” As dozens of evacuation flights left the country, Sabawoon and his family remained on the ground, waiting. Eventually, Sabawoon, the then-director of Kabul University’s Department of Epidemiology, was evacuated to Qatar and then Germany by the U.S. military.

In addition to his home country, Sabawoon was forced to abandon his research and ongoing projects. Only a chance internet connection in Germany allowed him to warn his co-authors that he would be unable to respond to their queries. Taken aback, his colleagues helped him search for a new position. It was then that Dr. Katherine Keyes, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia and a co-author of Sabawoon, introduced him to the Scholars at Risk Network, an NGO concerned with the academic freedom of displaced scholars. The organization protects scholars in their home countries and helps to find them new academic homes if need be.

Now, Sabawoon works at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health in a small, seventh-floor office overlooking the George Washington Bridge. It has been a year since he arrived at Columbia. But Kabul, his former department, and his journey to New York remain ever-present in his mind.

Like many other universities, Columbia has taken on a number of displaced scholars like Professor Sabawoon, including nine fellows at Columbia’s Global Center in Amman, Jordan. Sometimes, scholars are like any other refugee, forced to flee an unstable region for a variety of systemic reasons. But often the academy is specifically targeted: governments can force out researchers and scholars, eliminate their departments, interfere with course material, censor professors, and systematically strip their funding. A combination of both factors are usually at play. In the wake of scholarly expulsion, a complex nexus of universities, visa and immigration offices, private foundations, and NGOs serve to fund, hire, and sponsor those displaced. Ultimately, these systems ensure that scholars are able to continue their work and are not excluded from the international academic community.

The U.S. has a long history of harnessing the intellectual prowess of academic refugees for its national interest, often acting as the receiving end of a region’s brain drain. During and after WWII, America’s scientific and cultural bench deepened dramatically with an influx of European immigrants. Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Von Braun, and Hannah Arendt all settled in the United States after fleeing their respective countries. These scholars who remained in the U.S. helped inaugurate a new age of American cultural and scientific dominance, cementing the place of academic migrants as important figures for the public good.

The United States has traditionally received migrants departing situations toward which it is politically sympathetic. Iranian economists fleeing during the Iranian Revolution’s deposition of the Western-backed Shah flooded into U.S. departments, while Ukrainian refugees have had an easier time finding positions and fellowships than Syrian and Venezuelan scholars. Columbia has worked to rectify this discrepancy. Over the past two years, the University has run the Scholarship for Displaced Students, providing funding for 33 students across 14 schools. These students have come to New York from countries all over the world, including Venezuela, Cameroon, Nepal, and South Sudan. Still, the program is limited. Its 1.5 percent acceptance rate is lower than Columbia College’s, and its 16 yearly scholarships are miniscule in comparison to either the university’s 18,000 non-displaced international students or the nearly 100 million global refugees.

In the last year, however, the U.S. and institutions like Columbia have again taken a greater amount of European scholars as the Russia-Ukraine War has displaced more than eight million people. In January 2022, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the latest aggression in a war which began in 2014 with Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea. Since then, Columbia’s Harriman Institute, which studies Russia, Eurasia, and East Central Europe, has sponsored four Ukrainian refugees, providing them year-long artists-in-residences at the Paris Reid Hall campus. Columbia has also partnered with other universities to award 35 non-residential fellowships to scholars displaced by the war and provided scholarships to impacted students.

In July 2022, Professor Julia Lajus received a letter offering her a year-long visiting professorship from the Harriman Institute, co-sponsored by the Climate School. When the letter arrived, Lajus was living in Berlin and teaching at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science after fleeing from St. Petersburg, where she taught at the National Research University of Economics. A historian of science, she helped to found the first Master’s program in Russia conducted in English, an interdisciplinary history program studying “usable pasts”—eminently relevant as both Russia and Ukraine mine historical archives for evidence of their version of the past.

Lajus never rose to the administrative level in St. Petersburg. The leadership of the public university system in Russia, she felt, was too connected with the Russian government, one she was increasingly opposed to after the 2014 invasion of Crimea. Her day-to-day teaching remained uninhibited, but she made herself a promise to leave if the state ever interfered with her teaching. It never did. Even now, over a year into the full-scale invasion, the government has yet to restrict the course materials at her former institution. Still, the fear of repression and the connection to an increasingly imperialistic state troubled Lajus enough to motivate her move.

For Sabawoon, his decision to leave had been in the making for at least a couple decades. As he graduated from university, most of his classmates left the country for better jobs and more opportunities abroad, many becoming doctors in Europe and the U.S. An aunt in Norway implored Sabawoon to move, but he felt he had a duty to remain in Afghanistan and help develop its understaffed public health system. “I preferred to stay in the country and serve my people because my country and the people really needed me,” he explained.

Sabawoon’s sense of duty resulted in major gains for Afghanistan’s healthcare systems. In Kabul, he worked on a plan to institutionalize public health research and education, one that would introduce evidence-based decision making into research, teaching, and public health practice in the country. Sabawoon and his colleagues made significant progress toward implementing this plan, establishing courses on evidence-based research in medical, nursing, and dentistry schools as well as introducing biostatistics and other new practices into medical schools. In light of all this progress, deciding to leave twenty years later in the midst of another public health crisis was a difficult decision for Sabawoon. And indeed, much of the progress made from the program has been reversed since the Taliban’s re-capture of the country.

Yet, government repression is not the only roadblock prohibiting scholarship in Afghanistan. Academic freedom is also restricted by access to funding. Research in the country is dependent on donations from international sponsors, and in the wake of the Taliban’s advance, this funding has all but disappeared. Only humanitarian funding for basic services remains. Benefactors have balked at providing research dollars to scholars employed at Taliban-controlled universities, demanding a level of stability, a less oppressive political rule, and a regime less hostile to the West before considering funding. This withdrawal of resources further removes Afghan scholars from the global network, isolating them within the boundaries of their country.

Sabawoon, however, has never bound himself to political borders. “As a person, I do not restrict myself to geographic or ethnic boundaries,” he said. “I see people as human beings. All of us need each other, need to respect each other.” He has always collaborated with a global community of scholars, even when his research has been geared towards the local public health infrastructure. “The world is very small, though it seems to be very large. Everyone, particularly those who have the same profession and same skills, they know each other regardless of their country of residence.”

In Afghanistan, Sabawoon was never isolated from the rest of the international community. However, now living within that wider community, he finds himself further isolated from Afghanistan and his former colleagues. The entirety of his small epidemiology department left immediately after the Taliban’s re-capture of the Afghan government. One a female researcher and the other a professor with young daughters both fled, unable to continue their work in a country where women are now banned from university campuses and girls are forbidden from continuing education after sixth grade.

The number of educators and researchers in Afghanistan has plummeted since 2021. Even as professors are being replaced, the roles have been filled by recent graduates who lack the training and institutional knowledge necessary to teach students on their own. After Sabawoon first left, new additions to the epidemiology department in Kabul called often, asking procedural questions about best practices and talking about their lives under the new regime. But communication is now less frequent as they have settled into their roles, and official collaboration efforts have been blocked by the Minister of Higher Education.

Lajus, meanwhile, has maintained contact with former colleagues in Russia, but still considers the increasingly isolated Russian academy as a primary reason for her exodus. “I didn’t want to stay because I’ve been very international my [entire] career,” she explained. “I do not know how to do science without international connections.” She estimates that at least half of her department left alongside her after Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Her department, which once had students from all over the world, now only has a few international students remaining, mostly from China. Colleagues who have fled Russia have lost access to archives and materials necessary for their work, while researchers who remain have lost access to the wider international academic community.

Limits to global scholarly collaboration impact both researchers who stay in their home countries and those who leave. For those who decide to leave, finding a new home is incredibly difficult, made only slightly more manageable by programs like Scholars at Risk. Prospective refugees have always faced numerous hurdles before they could settle into their new universities. During World War II, the U.S. federal government allowed scholars to skip the capped quota system applied to other refugees. But by the end of 1941, less than 1,000 of these spots were filled as universities hesitated to create positions or find funding for scholars, and the State Department denied thousands of applications. In the eight years from the Nazi capture of the German political system in 1933 to the end of large-scale European immigration to the U.S. in 1941, less than 150 scholars annually were received by American universities.

Documents from those reviewing applications reveal a lack of concern for the life and death situations that scholars were facing. Writing about Edmund Stein, an American professor commented that Stein’s work was “competent and thorough but not brilliant, the sort of thing which good young men in Germany turnout almost automatically.” On the strength of this recommendation, Stein was rejected from a possible job at Manhattan’s New School for Social Research. He never found a professorship and was soon imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. In 1943, he was transported to Majdanek, the extermination camp from which he would not return.

During these eight years, Columbia was no particular safe haven either. University President Nicholas Murray Butler, of Butler Library fame, was particularly unforgiving toward the refugees’ pleas. Murray, a known anti-Semite who hosted the German Ambassador in 1938, was especially hesitant to accept Jewish scholars fleeing Nazi persecution.

While the administration was generally unaccommodating for displaced scholars, individuals within the Columbia faculty made efforts to aid European scholars, conducting fundraising drives, searching for funding, and lobbying for certain scholars. From his office in Schermerhorn Hall, Franz Boas, a founder of modern anthropology, led one of the largest efforts to rescue European scholars. Boas sent $104.70 a month ($2,300 in 2023) directly from his paycheck to the cause. He also wrote letters to Murray, pleading for the University to sign petitions and support scholars. The letters, and Boas’ persistent criticism of the University, led to his eventual dismissal from Columbia.

Now, Scholars at Risk has different goals for displaced scholars. Rather than a commitment to permanent scholarly integration, the program aims to help professors and researchers return to their home countries. Though often unachievable, the goal of SAR is to help stabilize academic communities such that professors can safely return home to their universities. “We do not want to be pulling everybody out of other places and profiting from that,” promised Lisa Anderson, the Chair of SAR’s Board of Directors and a professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. Programs to help aid displaced scholars are a “long-term but temporary expedient,” fitting within a larger pursuit of global academic freedom. “We really do think that the importance of academic freedom globally needs to be top of mind for people,” Anderson said. “Otherwise, there will be a very retail saving of careers that doesn’t solve the underlying problem, which is [that] there should be respect for the right to research, the right to learn, the right to teach everywhere.”

SAR’s current goals diverge from earlier rationales for accepting displaced scholars. This discrepancy can be extrapolated to governments' dispositions toward refugees more broadly. Should host countries permanently welcome refugees into the economic and political structures of their society, or should countries merely host refugees until it is safe and stable enough for them to return home?

Among some scholars there is a preference for the latter, a fact which is often present in their academic research. Sabawoon, for example, still studies Afghan public health, hoping to improve his country’s health system from 6,000 miles away.

Scholars are finding similar proximity to their homeland through art. Thirty years ago, poet Natalka Bilotserkivets’ poem “We Will Not Die in Paris” became an unofficial rallying cry for Ukrainian independence, idealizing Paris as a center of creativity and artistic creation, one forbidden and out of reach to Ukrainian artists. Today, as Bilotserkivets finds herself in Paris as part of the Harriman Institute’s artists-in-residence program, her poem once again becomes heartbreakingly relevant.

Poetry, art, and academic research have become powerful tools of resistance for displaced scholars. Bilotserkivets’ poem speaks to a distinct Ukrainian national expression. The war is, in part, intellectual and cultural, catalyzed by Russian attempts to eradicate Ukrainian identity and culture. In response, Ukrainians scattered across the globe are affirming the legitimacy of their own unique culture. Anna Stavychenko, another Harriman artist-in-residence and the former conductor of the Kyiv Philharmonic, has been attempting to introduce Stanislav Lyudkevich and other Ukrainian composers to European audiences to show the distinctiveness of Ukrainian art and its connections with Western Europe. From abroad, these scholars and artists feel they can have the greatest impact generating global support for the country, but their long-term desire remains to return home to a more safe, more stable Ukraine.

For displaced scholars, Columbia and Columbia-affiliated programs have served as safe spaces to continue their studies. Columbia allows these artists, researchers, and teachers access to the global community of scholarship and the possibility to continue their engagement within this network. This multicultural and multinational community fostered at Columbia is rare in the history of scholarship.

Still, however, displaced scholars at Columbia long for their homes above all else. Natalka Bilotserkivets had never been to Paris when she penned her poem. The Paris of the work was merely an Edenic home for artists and creatives, inaccessible to her thirty years ago. Today, however, her home is that which remains out of reach. Home is the goal, and Paris provides the hope, but for many displaced scholars, Columbia and all it offers will make do for now.


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