For Afghan Scholar, Cornell is a Step on a Longer Journey
Afghan political historian Sharif Hozoori is an IIE-SRF fellow and visiting scholar based in Einaudi’s South Asia Program.
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.
It was only after he was invited to a conference in Turkey in July 2021 that he finally got one. As a scholar of international relations and peace and conflict studies, he planned to take some extra time to conduct research in that country. He was still there on August 15, 2021, when Kabul fell to the Taliban. Suddenly, his prospects changed completely.
Today, Hozoori is an Institute of International Education Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE-SRF) 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 attended by 75 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. Yet while he says he is relieved and grateful to be at Cornell, he knows his journey is far from over.
"There are a lot of people like me ... scattered around the world. Some of them are driving a taxi or Uber."
“My wife and I joke that we are like Bedouins, living in a caravan,” he said.
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), 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 the 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.”
The challenge for all of them – as for thousands of scholars, journalists, activists, artists, students, and others who have fled perilous situations and found temporary shelter – is to figure out what to do next. Fellowships tend to be short – Hozoori’s was originally one year and extended for a second – and reconstructing a shattered life takes time, if it happens at all.
“There are a lot of people like me,” Hozoori said. “We have ministers, high-ranking people scattered around the world. Some of them are driving a taxi or Uber.”
Hozoori is no stranger to displacement. He was born in 1986 in rural south-central Afghanistan. “I come from a very simple family, a very humble family,” he said. “Each year we had two bulls, and my family would sell them.”
They were members of the minority Hazara ethnic group. 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.
By the time Hozoori finished high school in Iran, the Taliban had been chased from power and a pro-Western government was in charge. He returned to Afghanistan with an Iranian accent. He left again to attend university in India, where he eventually earned a PhD in international relations. When he came home this time, his accent was Indian.
All the time he was away, he remained fascinated by the history and politics of his home country. “What was the reason for instability in Afghanistan?” he would ask himself. “Why did the war continue for decades? Why couldn’t the people live together? These were the questions that were coming into my mind all the time.”
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.
"Why did the war continue for decades? Why couldn’t the people live together? These were the questions that were coming into my mind."
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 an IIE-SRF 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 tortuous 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 path 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 – advised him to be as active as possible writing papers, giving talks, sitting on panels and producing a blog. He has done all those things, including traveling to Denver and Los Angeles to present at conferences.
Katzenstein said Hozoori is “tough and resilient,” but acknowledged that finding an academic post will be difficult. He thinks his 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 finds it difficult to imagine himself working in a factory or driving an Uber, but 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.
Jonathan Miller is a freelance writer for Global Cornell.