For the Roosevelt House’s new visiting fellow, getting to Hunter College was a matter of life or death.
Late last month, Hunter President Jennifer J. Raab hosted a dinner at the Roosevelt House to celebrate the arrival of two Afghani scholars and the human-rights heroes who arranged their safe passage to the United States.
One scholar, who asked that her name not be used to protect her family, was an associate dean at Kabul University. There, she established a center to support women’s rights in Islamic societies and encouraged families to enroll their daughters in college.
But the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 forced her and her family to flee after the regime banned teenage girls from attending secondary school and started restricting the courses women could study at universities.
“It was not easy for me to leave, but it was what I had to do to provide for my daughters,” she said. “It has become impossible for girls in Afghanistan.”
Now, thanks to the generosity of anonymous donors, she’ll spend the next three years as a Human Rights Fellow at Roosevelt House.
The donors said they rushed to support the scholars because of their family’s experience helping Jews escape Nazi Germany.
“We’re so fortunate we were able to work with Hunter to help,” they said. “In Judaism, we say, ‘whoever saves one life saves the world.’”
It also took the hard work of Hunter faculty members, including Martha Bragin of the Silberman School of Social Work, politicians such as House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, new House Democrats leader Hakeem Jeffries, and a team of attorneys from Wildes & Weinberg to get the family out.
What resulted was a year-long journey to America through Pakistan that ended with a safe landing at Newark Airport on August 9.
The celebration was fittingly held in the Four Freedoms room at the Roosevelt House, which reminded President Raab of Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous saying about the strength of women.
“She said, ‘Women are like tea bags. You never know how strong they are until they’re in hot water,” President Raab said before turning to the Roosevelt House’s newest fellow. “You are so brave and we’re so happy to have you here.”
Yeshiva University has welcomed a second scholar from Afghanistan who arrived just a few weeks ago.
Both trips were 20 years in the making.
In 2001, the Afghan Interim Authority began governing a country devastated by 23 years of war and four years of drought. One of its first tasks was to rebuild its 19-campus free public university system, in which university leaders would create Social Work and Counseling departments. Hunter College was proud to partner in this project with Kabul University and Herat University.
In Afghanistan, Bragin’s methodologies for learning from communities were used to develop the curriculum at the schools.
“I am grateful to accompany my Afghan colleagues in their journey toward healing and peace,” Professor Bragin said.
Rep. Meeks pledged further support for the people of Afghanistan and thanked the scholars for their courage.
“We have to make sure the education of young people continues because it’s the essence of who we are as a people,” he said. “We should never stop raising our voices for truth and for what’s right.”
In a pre-recorded video, Gov. Kathy Hochul, who President Raab thanked for her commitment to supporting immigrants — having dedicated funds for refugee resettlement in New York — pledged to ensure immigrants continue to be the lifeblood of the state.
“We’re here to support you, listen to your needs and offer you any resources you may need to succeed,” she said. “I have no doubt your success will be a beacon of hope to countless others.”