For Afghan scholar, Cornell is a step on a longer journey
By Jonathan Miller
Two years ago, Sharif Hozoori was living in Kabul, working as a university professor and administrator and raising an infant son with his wife. He was glad to be back in his native country after many years away, first as a refugee, then as a student.
Hozoori was part of a wave of educated Afghans who had returned from abroad to help rebuild the country. His job as vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Afghanistan offered stability and prestige. Kabul was not exactly safe – he checked the chassis of his car for bombs every time he drove to or from work – but it felt like a good place to build a future.
“I was so optimistic, I didn’t even apply for a passport,” he recalled.
He finally got one to travel to Turkey for research in July 2021. He was still there on Aug. 15, 2021, when Kabul fell to the Taliban. Suddenly, his prospects changed completely.
Today, Hozoori is an Institute of International Education Scholar Rescue Fund fellow and a visiting scholar at Cornell’s South Asia Program (SAP), part of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. He’s become a familiar face in his year on campus – both as a political expert and a member of the local Afghan community. He has contributed to several events, including a panel discussion reflecting on the Taliban’s first year in power and talks organized by SAP at regional community colleges. In September the newly formed Afghan Students Organization invited him to serve as the group’s faculty adviser.
Cornell, long a haven for academic refugees, has increased its focus on supporting scholars under threat. Global Cornell works with scholar rescue groups to identify individuals at risk and then arrange visas, flights and other practicalities – often on an emergency basis. Once the scholars are at Cornell, the Einaudi Center provides an intellectual community, connections with university departments, social and career support and links to faculty mentors.
Cornell is currently hosting three Afghan scholars (including scholars at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art and the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences), a Russian dissident writer based at the Einaudi Center’s Institute for European Studies and a Turkish scholar in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.
“These people’s lives were in danger,” said Iftikhar Dadi, SAP director and the John H. Burris Professor in the Department of History of Art and Visual Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S). “It’s not just that they were professionally thwarted. Their lives were threatened.”
Hozoori, a member of the minority Hazara ethnic group, was born in 1986 in rural south-central Afghanistan. The Hazara are predominantly Shi’a Muslims, and they were frequent targets of the Sunni guerrilla groups that were vying for power during the 1990s. When the Taliban took control in 1995, life became even more difficult.
“There were hundreds of incidents, with Hazara being kidnapped on the highway, being beheaded and killed,” Hozoori remembered. “They were disappearing and no one knew where they were.” Along with millions of other Afghans, Hozoori’s family fled to Iran, where they lived as refugees.
Hozoori later attended university in India, where he wrote his doctoral thesis on the role of political elites in Afghanistan’s politics and foreign policy. In his writing and teaching, he was critical of both traditional political players and insurgents like the Taliban.
When the group seized power again in 2021, he knew he would be jailed or killed if he returned to Kabul. From Turkey, Hozoori applied for a fellowship for scholars under threat and waited for a new path to open.
Global Cornell staff selected him as a visiting scholar and then worked to arrange a U.S. visa, a process that took several months. After many false starts and missed connections, Hozoori finally made it to Ithaca and his placement in the South Asia Program in January 2022. His wife and toddler followed in late February.
Now Hozoori walks from Hasbrouck Apartments each day to his shared office in the Einaudi Center and tries to map out his future. But finding a way forward isn’t easy. The academic job market is fiercely competitive. Hozoori’s expertise in Afghan politics and culture puts him in a narrow niche.
Government professor Peter Katzenstein (A&S) – one of Hozoori’s academic mentors at the Einaudi Center – thinks Hozoori’s best prospects are as a researcher or analyst at a think tank. “He’s basically a contemporary historian, with a very deep, immersive knowledge,” Katzenstein said. “That’s his comparative advantage.”
Hozoori says his first choice is still a university research or teaching job. Second is something in educational administration. But the clock is ticking, and he has begun to look farther afield. He has a family to support, so long-term stability is paramount. For him – as for so many displaced scholars – stability may be the most ambitious goal of all.
Read the full version of this story on the Einaudi Center website.
Jonathan Miller is a freelance writer for Global Cornell.