When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan last summer, Mustafa Saqib and his wife, Sanaa Talwasa, feared for their lives. The Taliban had terrorized the nation with a wave of targeted killings of religious leaders, government employees, activists, and intellectuals. The couple fit the description: Saqib was a grad student in philosophy who was studying democracy, and Talwasa was a women’s rights advocate who had worked for the National Security Council.
The two had little choice but to leave their homeland. “It is not safe when there is no system and no government,” Saqib said.
They applied for a seat on a U.S. evacuation flight, one that would take them to a country like Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, where they could find safe haven.
Then they waited and worried.
At the time, Saqib was in his hometown of Herat—more than 500 miles west of Kabul—caring for his parents, who were recovering from COVID-19. Talwasa was in Kabul, living alone in their apartment. “All of the government buildings were occupied by the Taliban,” Saqib said. “They had access to information about government staff. We were concerned about Sanaa’s safety because they could possibly find her.”
With commercial flights canceled throughout the country, Saqib traveled 24 hours by bus from Herat to join Talwasa in Kabul. The bus navigated treacherous roads that had been bombed in battles just days earlier and detoured around many bridges that had been destroyed. At several Taliban checkpoints, officers interrogated and harassed passengers.
In Kabul, the couple packed their bags and prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. “We lived several weeks hiding with this distress, fearing for our lives,” Saqib said.
Desperate to flee, they searched for alternate ways to get out. And that’s when a retired Rutgers–Camden professor stepped in to help.
Rutgers–Camden Reaches Out
Jon Van Til, a professor emeritus of urban studies and community planning at Rutgers–Camden who now lives in Hungary, had met Saqib several years before when he visited Marmara University in Turkey, where Saqib is a doctoral student. When the Taliban took over Afghanistan, he emailed Saqib to check on him. “I didn't want him to get into any more trouble than I feared he was already in from the political fanatics who were rapidly assuming control of his country,” Van Til said.
Van Til reached out to his contacts in the Rutgers–Camden Department of Public Policy and Administration, asking them to consider bringing Saqib and Talwasa to the university. Department chair Lori Minnite welcomed the idea. “Any opportunity on our campus to expose our students to international issues and international scholars is a great benefit to them,” she said. Minnite agreed to fund half of a visiting-scholar appointment for Saqib, and Ric Garfunkel of Rutgers Global helped secure a matching $25,000 grant from the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund.
But first, Saqib and Talwasa had to get out of Afghanistan.
Van Til assembled a team to help that included his niece Desi Van Til—a filmmaker and activist in Maine—along with Rutgers faculty and staff. The plan was to help Saqib and Talwasa escape from Afghanistan and head to neighboring Pakistan, which has a U.S. embassy where they could apply for visiting scholar visas. Desi Van Til called and texted the couple every day, worked to raise funds for private flights, called and emailed people who could assist in any way, and spoke with pro-bono immigration lawyers.
Saqib and Talwasa’s overnight trip to Pakistan was complicated by hazardous road conditions from a pounding snowstorm and stops at Taliban checkpoints where gun-toting officers interrogated them about their travel plans before allowing them to continue. “I felt relief when we crossed the border into Pakistan,” Sabiq said. “But there are mixed feelings when you leave your country, because I may not have a way to get back there.” The couple still has many family members and friends in Afghanistan and are worried for their safety.
In early January, Sabiq and Talwasa were granted J-1 visiting scholar visas at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. “Now, the whole world opened up to us,” Saqib said.
They headed first to Maine, where Desi Van Til had invited them to spend two weeks with her family. “They were family to me, and the focal point of my days and nights,” Desi Van Til said. “We had been through an immensely stressful, intense, and meaningful five months, working together. We needed to see each other and celebrate their arrival and squeeze each other in real life.”
Settling in Camden
Next the couple made their way to Camden, where, with support from the public policy department, they found housing, connected with Afghan networks in the area, and became acclimated to life on campus. “We all remain mindful and sensitive towards Mustafa’s and Sanaa’s situation, what they have just been through, the trauma they have undoubtedly experienced,” said Natasha Fletcher, the associate director of the Rutgers–Camden Center for Urban Research and Education. “It’s important to give them space and not overwhelm them.”
During Saqib’s one-year appointment as a visiting scholar in the Department of Public Policy and Administration, he is studying local government and complete his dissertation for a Ph.D. in at Marmara University in Istanbul. In the fall, he will teach the “Global Cities” course at Rutgers–Camden.
Minnite said his presence will benefit the campus. “We want to internationalize our curriculum and broaden perspectives, so any opportunity to host an accomplished international scholar benefits students and faculty,” she said. “Rutgers Camden’s large veteran and military-affiliated student population will have plenty to learn from Saqib. I look forward to seeing how his position can foster the exchange of ideas and inspire collaborative teaching and research efforts.”
Talwasa, a Fulbright scholar who holds a law degree from a university in Afghanistan and a master of laws degree from Emory University in Atlanta, is looking forward to enrolling at Rutgers Law School in Camden in the fall to pursue a law degree in the United States. “I am coming from a place where women are not to be seen in public,” Talwasa said. “Now I have a chance to go to law school and conduct research without fear and write about Afghan women. What I am doing is not just for myself but also for future generations. I hope it will be easier for them.”
In March, the Center for Urban Research and Education hosted an hour-long in-person and virtual talk by Saqib, to introduce him to the campus community by sharing the couple’s journey from Afghanistan to Camden. “I am so grateful and overjoyed for the precious opportunity to be at Rutgers University–Camden,” Saqib said. “It wouldn’t be possible for us to be laughing, talking, and thinking of becoming safe without the contributions of Professor Van Til and Rutgers.”