On August 31, 2021, the United States forces left the Kabul International Airport, and they took with them the last airplanes to freedom. Tens of thousands of Afghans were left on tarmacs and in terminals, desperately pleading to escape Taliban rule. Now they are in hiding. But a Haverford English and Comparative Literature professor, Maud McInerney, is leading the effort to help one of these Afghans safely escape.
Along with the chair of the religion department, Naomi Koltun-Fromm and Assistant Professor of Religion Guangtian Ha, Professor McInerney is pushing for Haverford College to sponsor either a well-known Afghan musician or another academic with J-1 visas. This would allow them and their families to come to the United States and have a short-term residence at the college. While it wouldn’t guarantee safe passage from Afghanistan, securing the visas would be their family’s best chance at safety.
The J-1 visa allows someone to come to the United States and teach at a university for up to five years. If the college agrees to sponsor one of these academics, they would send a letter of sponsorship to the State Department, who would then decide whether to approve the letter and grant the visa. If the visa is granted, the academic receives the visa electronically and is then able to begin the dangerous travel process. First, they have to travel by land to a neighboring country (Iran or Pakistan) and board a flight there. The hope of professors McInerney, Ha, and Koltun-Fromm is that once the scholar is here, NGOs would help them apply for political asylum so they could remain in the United States. This plan has many contingencies, but getting the institution to write a letter of sponsorship is the only thing in our power, and without that, the rest of the steps cannot be executed.
The college is more than capable of sponsoring a scholar: they have the legal power to secure the necessary visas, as well as the means for funding the chosen candidate through programs such as the Tuttle Creative Residencies.
One candidate is a well-known artist and musician in Afghanistan. His artwork has been featured at the International Contemporary Art Fair in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and videos of his music have gotten over half a million views on YouTube. But since the Taliban plans to impose a nationwide ban on music in the country, he and his family may soon become targets. The Taliban has already killed an Afghan singer, so he is fearful that he will be next. By coming to Haverford’s community, he would not only escape persecution, but he would diversify the Haverford music department, which currently only offers courses on Western classical music and music theory.
Professor Koltun-Fromm proposed the musician and one other Afghan scholar to the Office of the Provost on September 1. The next day, Professor McInerney and Professor Ha circulated an open letter, which has the signatures of over one-third of all faculty, regarding their goal of granting one of these candidates a letter of sponsorship from the college, and sent it to Provost Linda Strong-Leek and President Wendy Raymond the following day. Six days later, Professor McInerney brought forth the open letter during the open question session at the faculty meeting. Professor McInerney promoted the open letter in that faculty meeting because of the administration’s inaction—it took two weeks for the administration to respond.
On September 15, the Haverford administration wrote in an email to Professor McInerney, Professor Ha, and Professor Koltun-Fromm that they are “100% on board with this request,” but had hesitations before writing the letter of sponsorship, such as what kind of J-1 visa they should sponsor and whether the scholar is out of Afghanistan and in a “safe” place. But waiting to draft the letter of sponsorship until the scholar is out of Afghanistan wastes valuable time. In fact, this past weekend, Haverford College announced that they would write the letter of sponsorship for a female scholar of Persian languages and literatures at Rana University Kabul, only to discover that they had acted too late. Columbia University had already agreed to sponsor her.
However, just because this scholar is getting sponsored by another institution does not mean Haverford should turn their backs on the issue. There are many other Afghan candidates that Haverford can sponsor—or they could also sponsor the musician instead.
In the aftermath of the 2020 strike, Haverford’s administration promised to increase diversity and inclusion in classrooms and communities, and this is an opportune moment to do so. President Raymond stated last year, “I want Haverford to be a place that encourages and supports students to act on their values in service of a more just world, and that includes through direct action.” In advocating for Haverford to sponsor an Afghan scholar, the students and faculty are doing just that.
Haverford has a history of helping refugees in crisis in the exact way that these professors are proposing. During the Holocaust, Haverford helped get Jewish scholars out of Germany, one of who later wrote about his experiences. And during the Bosnian War, Haverford professor Michael Sells helped bring Bosnian refugees to be students at the college. In all of these cases, Haverford was able to use its privilege as a wealthy, well-regarded institution to aid refugees in crisis. Now, we are able to make a direct impact on the Afghan refugee crisis, and we must act quickly if we are to do so.