Farhad Sharifi (photo by Boston College)

Boston College (BC) School of Social Work part-time faculty member Maryanne Loughry, R.S.M., was teaching a course on migration and social policy in Washington, D.C. on August 15, 2021, when the news broke: After months of escalating violence, the Taliban had seized control of Kabul, marking the official collapse of the Afghan government and erasing twenty years of social and economic progress in the war-torn country.

Almost immediately, scenes of chaos and desperation were broadcast from the Kabul airport as Afghan citizens risked their lives to flee the country. In the following days, thousands of men, women, and children boarded planes bound for military bases across the United States, including Wisconsin’s Fort McCoy, where Loughry had joined an emergency team formed by the Migration and Refugee Service of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“It was literally a humanitarian emergency,” recalled Sister Loughry, who was recruited to volunteer because of her background working with refugees. “We had no idea how many were arriving or who they were. When I arrived, the first 800 people had landed at the base that day, and by the time I left, there were 13,000.”

For three weeks, Sister Loughry ran a morale and wellness center, where women and children could safely congregate and play. She and the other volunteers distributed donated clothing and supplies — many refugees had arrived with only the clothing on their backs — and offered legal assistance, but the evacuees’ needs quickly exceeded the base’s limited resources.

“It was a very tough time for the population,” said Sister Loughry. “Many adults were overwhelmed, first by having survived, and then by the system.”

As Sister Loughry worked on the ground, her BC colleagues, led by Vice Provost for Global Engagement Rev. James Keenan, S.J., were discussing another way to assist. To build new lives in the U.S., a majority of the Afghan refugees would need to secure employment. They wondered: Would an evacuee with an academic or humanitarian background be interested in working at Boston College?

Through her contacts, Sister Loughry learned that a young Afghan man named Farhad Sharifi was staying at Indiana’s Camp Atterbury-Muscatatuck, just seven hours from Fort McCoy. Sharifi was fluent in English and had a Master’s degree in social work from St. Joseph’s College in Bangalore, India. Prior to his evacuation, he worked for an international non-governmental organization supporting the education of Afghan girls. Sister Loughry arranged to speak to him.

Farhad Sharifi with members of the BC community (photo by Boston College)

When he initially heard from Sister Loughry, Sharifi was in the midst of navigating one of the most difficult life transitions. He had been living in the city of Herat with his parents and younger brother before the government collapsed, working with internally displaced people to provide education, local leadership, and capacity-building programs. His job responsibilities included field-work in remote villages, where he risked kidnapping and violent attack by the Taliban.

“I had times when I needed to look over my shoulder to see if someone was following me,” he recalled.

Fearing persecution, Sharifi and his colleagues left Herat the day before the city fell, and were among the thousands standing outside the Kabul airport following the August 15 takeover. Sharifi slept on the pavement for several nights, awakening frequently to the sound of gunshots being fired into the air by Taliban guards. On August 23, he was granted airport access and boarded a plane bound for the United Arab Emirates. On September 11, he arrived at Camp Atterbury-Muscatatuck, where he would live for the next three months.

Upon reflection, Sharifi believes he had no choice but to leave Afghanistan, a fact that weighs on him heavily. “When you don’t have any control over what’s happening in your life, it is always stressful,” he said. “Like many other evacuees, I feel uprooted, betrayed, and oppressed all at the same time. We in the Afghan community, especially the youth and the new generation, feel like we’ve been thrown back more than 100 years, like everything that was meaningful has been lost and what remains is only hope for many of us.”

For a month after their first phone call, Sister Loughry and Sharifi spoke daily by phone, hammering out a plan to bring Sharifi to BC. School of Social Work Dean Gautam Yadama had offered Sharifi a position in the Research Program on Children and Adversity, but there were other details to consider.

“There was the job, but also the logistics of housing and clothing and food and donations,” said Sister Loughry. “I was immensely supported by the BC system—everybody played a role once I pulled them in. People were constantly ringing me up saying, ‘I can do this,’ or ‘We can do that.’”

St. Ignatius Parish, adjacent to BC’s campus in Chestnut Hill, MA, also provided extensive support, stepping in to coordinate donations of necessities for Sharifi through its longstanding Assisting Resettlement of Refugees Using Parish Energies program. Staff and parish volunteers worked to arrange coverage for Sharifi’s rent and utility payments, and provide food cards until his first paycheck arrived.

On December 3, Sister Loughry and a host family from Chestnut Hill met Sharifi at Boston’s Logan Airport. He was carrying a single backpack of possessions, ready to start a new life.

“I’ll never forget that moment,” said Sister Loughry. “He trusted us to get on that plane and come to Boston. That would have overwhelmed anybody, I think, but he was able to do it.”

Since arriving at BC, Sharifi has thrown himself into his work as a way to keep his mind busy. In his new position, he’s helping to adapt programs designed for specific refugee populations so they can be used to help Afghan refugees.

“It’s similar to my job in Afghanistan in that I’m in the social work realm and I’m getting to work with families and communities,” he said. “I’m learning a lot.”

Outside of his job, Sharifi hopes he can be a resource to members of the wider BC community interested in hearing his story and learning about Afghanistan’s political and cultural landscape. On February 2, 2022, he joined Sister Loughry and Fr. Keenan for his first public event: “On Refugee Work and Afghanistan: An interview with Farhad Sharifi.”

Becoming a refugee himself has given Sharifi a deeper understanding of the experiences of other displaced people, and made him even more determined to work to ensure that all humans are free from oppression. While he misses his family, he remains hopeful for the future, at BC and beyond.

“Sometimes, when my Afghan colleagues and friends text me about the situation [at home] and the imposed limitations on the already limited freedom they had, I feel numb,” he said. “But what I’m certain about is that hardship has made us stronger and more resilient to our environment. We will rise again and prosper and do our part to make this world a better place.”

By Alix Hackett, Senior Digital Content Writer, Boston College

This article was originally published on bc.edu and is shared in this issue of Connections with permission from Boston College.