From Kabul to New York City

Abdul S.– name changed, is an exiled professor of epidemiology at Kabul University of Medical Science and the first Afghan scholar to accept a position at Columbia University through the initiative of “Columbia University Scholarship for Displaced Students”. Abdul S. discusses his decision-making process of when to flee in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 and his experiences of flight to New York City.

He emphasizes the importance of support networks during his flight.

Would you have stayed in Afghanistan if you had a choice? How did you get to New York city?

The decision was very tough. To be honest you can see, how bad it was from 2020 till 2021 with an instable situation. More than 30 years, I served Afghan people in different positions. I just contributed to each field… like some reforms, like co-founders of National AIDS Control Program. It effects my choice; I would not leave like that. Then in 2021 there is a fear of people around the country, if someone is working with the United State based organizations and international organizations. I had been working with a lot of international organizations such as Johns Hopkins University, UNICEF, UNAIDS, Conseila Sante as well, for example one organization in France. I can speak French. In addition to that also, as I mentioned the USA, like UNICEF, having a working relationship, I had with them. So, I am afraid, that if the Taliban came to power, probably they don’t distinguish between academic institutions and military institutions and probably I may be targeted by them. Some of my neighbors debated with my son, for example: “Your father is so well-known and is working with the Americans…” That is really something, that I should consider seriously. Last August my younger son (he is now 10), he came to me and said: “Father, look, you spent your whole life in a war situation and there is no improvement in the country. So why are you staying here? We also have to spend our life in war, in conflict?“ In last decades there is a very bad phenomenon, like exclusions. For example, when my sons left for a school or jobs, their mother was thinking, will they come back home or not. Every mother or father didn’t feel safe. So, I informed the Johns Hopkins University, that I am going to leave the country. There was a chance for a P2 application, that Johns Hopkins University filled up for me, but not only for me, but also for the whole staff they had. In August 2021 when Taliban re-took the power, the Johns Hopkins University established a team to just work on how their staff may be evacuated from the Kabul. They informed U.S. Army Forces and then by their efforts we evacuated.

Could you explain for people, who don’t know, what a P2 Visa is? Were there other bureaucratic channels, that you had to overcome to get to New York city? Did you have a pre-existing support-network before you came to the New York city?

P2-priority second is considered when someone works with the U.S. based organization, but not receiving funds directly from the government of the U.S. like academics. For P2 visa the institution from the U.S. has to fill out an application for their staff.

The Johns Hopkins University tried to chart a plane for us, but then unfortunately at that time, there was an explosion at the airport… We almost spent 3 nights in the bus, and at the last moment we got to enter the airport. I believe that much effort was made by Johns Hopkins University, by some people they established. We spent one night in Qatar and then from Qatar we came to Germany, to Ramstein. In Ramstein there is a huge U.S. military base. We spent more than 40 days there.

When I was in Germany, I along with my research team submitted an article for publication where I was a correspondent author for that paper. Therefore, I contacted the principal investigator, Professor Vivien, and informed her that I am in a refugee camp and did not have access to the internet to communicate with journals for publication if there is anything for clarification. When she realized that I had been evacuated from Afghanistan by the U.S. Army and was going to the United States, she started communication with Columbia University and she introduced me to one of her colleagues named Professor Katherine Keyes (Kerry). I was like a co-responder curator for other academics. So, I informed the other curator-professor Vivien, she is now living in France. We did not have access to the internet, so I was afraid, that if we submitted to the journal, I would miss some e-mails. I informed her, that we are in Germany, so probably if journal sent me an e-mail or asked for a qualification, I am not able to respond, -„please take care of that“. She had a strong connection with Columbia University. She said that there is a chance to get to the USA by what is called „Scholars at Risk Program“-a scholarship (program for scholars), that will help to get to the USA…. So, when I came to the U.S. last October, I went to Virginia and stayed in a refugee camp… we stayed in a hotel. Professor Katherine Keyes established some networks with the head departments, for example Department of Epidemiology. The chair accepted me as a staff member of the department. So, they offered me a position as an associate research scientist in the department of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health. So, this is the story of how I came from Afghanistan to New York, and I feel so lucky because more than fifty thousand people have been evacuated from Afghanistan. I appreciate the work of Professor Vivien, and scholars and professor Kerry and the whole Department of Epidemiology…

Abdul S. – name changed, former associate professor of epidemiology at Kabul University of Medical Science, is the first Afghan scholar to accept a position at Columbia University under the “Columbia University Scholarship for Displaced Students” initiative. He is a medical doctor and graduated from Kabul University of Medical Sciences in 1990. Since the 1990s, he worked in a hospital where he witnessed the war firsthand on a daily basis. As the situation in Afghanistan worsened, he was transferred to one of the provinces to work as a general surgeon in a local hospital. He returned to Kabul in 2001. In 2003, Abdul co-founded the “National AIDS Control Program.” At that time, he switched from medicine to the field of public health. After completing a master’s degree in public health in Ireland, Abdul joined Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA, in 2010 as a project director. When the project was discontinued in 2013, he returned to Kabul University of Medical Sciences as a professor in the Department of Public Health. During the period from 2016 to 2018, he was the Dean of the Faculty of Public Health. With the Taliban coming to power on August 15, 2021, he and his family found themselves in acute danger from one moment to the next. His cooperation with international organizations and American universities could now be his undoing, so he made the decision to flee to the United States with American university support.


The interview was conducted by the We Refugees Archive Team in the spring of 2022.