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A UM teacher is working to find refuge for displaced Afghan scholars

An empty lecture hall
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An instructor at the University of Montana is working to get scholars out of Afghanistan, after the Taliban took control.

UM Geography instructor Kelly Franklin is trying to move up to 12 scholars and an education program she developed out of Afghanistan. The lives of scholars have been upended after the Taliban took control of the country and injected itself into the education system.

“Yeah, just their daily ways of life, I mean, the whole entire carpet has been lift[ed] off from under their feet,” Franklin says.

Franklin’s dissertation focused on the higher education system in Afghanistan, and in 2015 she worked as an international consultant there. Franklin, along with the United Nations Environment program and UM’s College of Forestry and Conservation, developed a curriculum for a new university in Afghanistan. Franklin made connections with people learning how to develop community service projects in their region.

On a recent phone call, Franklin spoke with an Afghan scholar about the changes he’s seeing for teachers and students since the Taliban took over.

“And then what about certain departments? Like those that are within the field of sociology, history. I know you had said before that it’s questionable whether the Taliban would support them," Franklin asks the scholar.  

“They are trying, they are trying to,” the scholar says. “They told us ‘we will change some subjects and remove some subjects,’ but it’s still not clear what kind of subject or which subjects.”

The man on the other line is describing what he calls the collapse of the higher education system under the Taliban. For his protection, Montana Public Radio is not disclosing his identity.

“Right now they are very politicizing things. But maybe in the future it’ll be much worse for some classes or for some subjects, and also for ladies,” he says.

The man is just one of hundreds of Afghani scholars in a similar situation.

Scholars at Risk is a New York City-based organization that helps protect scholars and promotes academic freedom. In an emailed statement, the organization’s deputy director Sarah Wilcox said, of the 1,250 requests for help Scholars at Risk has received, very few have reached a host campus.

Wilcox says many Afghans applying are in hiding or on the move for security reasons, with few safe options to exit the country. Those who’ve made it to neighboring countries face a very complicated visa process.

Faiz Shah, a professor at the Central Asia Institute, is helping move Franklin’s community service curriculum from the Afghan university to his university in Thailand.

“And of course we’ll host them. They can use university facilities. They’ll be able to stay on campus as regular students for six months or as long as their visas last,” Shah says.

When the dozen students in Franklin's program can get out of Afghanistan safely, she plans to teach them remotely from Montana as they continue their education as students at the Central Asia Institute.

“So I have full confidence in the Afghan people. It’s a big question in terms of what the future will look like, but as they have hope, I also have to have the hope with them,” she says.

For the Afghan scholar who Franklin spoke with earlier, pursuing the same kind of education in his home country under Taliban rule is now dangerous.

“This is a kind of order. And if someone do not obey that one — that would be more dangerous for them. For their life, even.”

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