CUNY Lecturer Launches Campaign To Free Afghan Writer And Family

CUNY alumna and faculty member Zohra Saed embarked on a daunting challenge with high stakes.
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Photo: CUNY

When the U.S. started withdrawing military forces from Afghanistan this summer and the Taliban began seizing control, CUNY alumna and faculty member Zohra Saed embarked on a daunting challenge with high stakes.

With the help of an immigration attorney who was her former student at CUNY, she is attempting to arrange the evacuation of an imperiled Afghan writer and 11 members of his family. Saed and Mayha Ghouri, a graduate of Hunter College and the CUNY School of Law, have been working since August to get the writer and his family out of Afghanistan and on their way to the U.S. They have helped the family apply for visas under an emergency process called humanitarian parole, and Saed has been raising thousands of dollars to defray the family’s application, travel and relocation expenses.

Several family members are in grave danger because of their work in education and anti-Taliban activities, and they are now in hiding and on the move to avoid detection.

Their names are being withheld to protect their safety.

“In Afghanistan, a lot of people risked their lives to create things like education and gender equity and now they've been abandoned,” said Saed, a writer and poet who is a distinguished lecturer at Macaulay Honors College. “We all saw those airport images and there’s a reason for that kind of fear. They are brave activists, and we need to do something to support them and save their lives.”

Ghouri submitted the 12 applications last week. They are among an estimated 70,000 humanitarian parole applications submitted to date on behalf of Afghans seeking a new home in America. If they are approved — a process that could take months — the family would have to make their way across the border of a neighboring country to pick up their visas from an American embassy or consulate before traveling to the U.S.

“The plight of this family and of tens of thousands of Afghans who are in danger and seeking refuge in the United States touches so many of us at CUNY,” said Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez. “We are in many ways an international university, one that has welcomed and provided education and opportunity to generations of immigrants, including refugees from all over the world. I applaud Zohra Saed and Mayha Ghouri for their selflessness and compassion and hope that their efforts bring the family to safety and a new life of dignity, equality and opportunity in the United States.”

The New York Times wrote Friday about Saed and Ghoury’s quest to evacuate the family and the support they have gotten from the CUNY community. Read the story here.

Strong Sense of Kinship

Saed was born in Afghanistan to parents whose forebears were refugees from Uzbekistan. The family became refugees again during the Soviet war in the 1980s, leaving Afghanistan when Saed was a year old, moving first to Saudi Arabia and eventually emigrating to Brooklyn when she was 5.

At Brooklyn College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree, Saed studied cross-cultural literature and poetry, started a magazine for women of color and developed her interest in Afghan folktales. She went on to complete the MFA program in poetry at Brooklyn and then her Ph.D. at the Graduate Center. She taught at three CUNY colleges — Hunter, Baruch and the New York City College of Technology — before joining Macaulay this year.

When she was a graduate student at Brooklyn in 2001, Saed and a classmate, Robert Booras, started Upset Press, a nonprofit micropress that has published 17 literary works, most by CUNY-affiliated poets and writers. In 2018, an Uzbek scholar Saed knew in Britain told her about his brother, a writer in Afghanistan who was collecting lyric folk poems that had been passed down through generations in the Turkic regions of the country. Intrigued, Saed got in touch with the writer and began talking with him about translating the folk poems into English and publishing them as a book.

They had been working on the project for three years when everything changed in Afghanistan. This spring, as the Taliban were starting to sweep through the country amid the U.S. withdrawal, Saed worried about the writer, as well as others in his family who would be in danger because of their activities promoting a more modern and equitable Afghanistan. She joined a virtual network of Afghan Americans who began trying to facilitate evacuations of Afghans who wouldn’t qualify for Special Immigrant Visas because they didn’t work directly with the United States military, but whose activities — and in some cases because of their status as ethnic minorities or LGBTQI+ — made them Taliban targets.

The writer made a living as a local youth sports coordinator with programs that were sponsored by the now-deposed government and included girls, Saed said.

“He protected the girls, so the Taliban was chasing him and he had to go into hiding with his family,” Saed said. “His sister was a girls high school principal who trained women in rural areas for teacher certifications. In May, I read in The New York Times that the Taliban was bombing girls’ schools. And their father is a theologian and an artist who spoke against the Taliban.”

The family was also in danger because they are part of the Uzbek minority in northern Afghanistan, an ethnic group that has long been a target of Taliban hostility. Uzbeks were among the thousands of victims of a massacre by the Taliban in 1998. Three years later, Uzbeks aided the U.S. war on terror after the 9/11 attacks and imprisoned thousands of Taliban. With the Taliban now back in control, Uzbeks are in peril of retribution.

Saed has only distant relatives in Afghanistan but says she felt a strong sense of kinship with the writer and his family. Besides sharing an ethnic heritage, she said, “These are my literary, artistic and educational activist family. So I thought, ‘I have to help and get involved.’ ”

Enlisting Her Former Student

In August, Saed learned that the writer’s sister was able to get on the list for evacuation by U.S. military. “She made the 10-hour trip to Kabul but in the chaos at the airport she didn’t make it on any of the flights,” Saed said. “She was there on the day of the bombing and avoided it by 10 minutes because just by luck, she gave up waiting after being there 24 hours.”

Once it was clear that the family wouldn’t be able to leave the country before the completion of the U.S. withdrawal, Saed connected with Ghouri, her former student at Hunter College who is now a staff immigration attorney at Neighbors Link, a Westchester-based non-profit that provides services to immigrants. Ghouri worked with Saed to collect the required documentation for the humanitarian parole application. Saed has communicated with the family through her acquaintance in Britain, and she signed and submitted the applications on their behalf.

Saed also mounted a GoFundMe campaign to raise nearly $7,000 for the family’s application fees. She is now trying to raise another $32,000 to cover their travel and settlement expenses should their applications be approved. (Donations may be made here.) Her commitment to the family — and her day-to-day worries about their safety and the uncertainty of their prospects — has made for an intensely emotional ordeal.

“This is a family of literary, artistic and educational activists who did a lot of work, showed a lot of courage and protected a lot of lives in Afghanistan, and now it’s time to protect them,” Saed said. “They need our help to come to a place where they can breathe easy, where they can live with respect and dignity.”

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