Escaping the Taliban
When Arslan Muradi, F17, returned to his family home in Afghanistan in the summer of 2013, he had no idea the visit would be his last. Muradi was then on break from his undergraduate studies at Hampshire College, just one year away from completing his bachelor’s degree in international relations and heading to the Fletcher School for graduate work. But while Muradi had been studying in America, something terrible had happened: the Taliban had added his name to a list.
“We didn’t want to tell you when you were at school,” Muradi’s parents told him that summer, “but we have been getting threat letters from the Taliban, saying that your son has been working with the Americans, living in America and is an infidel.” The Taliban was “essentially saying if there’s any harm done, they’ll know why,” Muradi recalled. “So my father asked me not to come home after my studies were done.”
Muradi did not return, but that didn’t placate the Taliban. His college education wasn’t the only thing that had landed him on their list—he had also worked as an interpreter for the United States government. In the fall of 2013, the Taliban killed his uncle. In March of 2014, they killed his father.
Muradi’s losses were devastating, but he could not afford to collapse in grief. His mother and five siblings were still in danger, and he had to get them out of Afghanistan. Although Muradi wasn’t sure how to do that from more than 6,000 miles away, a community of Hampshire and Fletcher faculty—as well as a small army of immigration lawyers and local politicians—rallied around him to get his family to safety.
Muradi’s connection to Fletcher ran back to 2004. That’s when Ted Achilles, F62, visited his high school in Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, to recruit English-speaking students for a U.S. cultural exchange program called the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study. At the time, English just happened to be one of Muradi’s five languages (he now speaks seven). He ended up spending a year at a high school in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and then returned home to Afghanistan.
Upon graduating, he worked with Americans through a variety of programs, including as an interpreter for the United States Agency for International Development. A scholarship led Muradi to Hampshire College in 2010 and, while he was working on his thesis, his academic advisor Michael Klare nudged him toward Fletcher. Muradi, who was interested in international security studies and conflict resolution, applied and got in.
But before Muradi’s graduation from Hampshire, his uncle and father were murdered. He turned to the college’s president, Jonathan Lash, for help. Lash helped him raise enough money to get his family moved to the city of Kabul, where they could hide, while Muradi, Lash and supporters developed a plan.
“Team Muradi,” as the group unofficially dubbed themselves, soon included Anthony Cortese, E68, E72, the former dean of environmental programs at Tufts. Lash had contacted Cortese, a longtime friend and colleague, in hopes that he could look after Muradi as he began his degree at Fletcher. Cortese did that and more—since Muradi did not have housing, he offered him a spare room in his home.
“They, in many senses, became my American family,” Muradi said. Cortese and his wife, Donna DiGioia, M89, soon became some of Muradi’s fiercest champions. “With the burden of trying to get his family to safety and the emotional trauma over the loss of his father, we felt that it was really important to him to have a stable life,” Cortese said. “Little did we know that he would become one of the most important people in our lives.”
Muradi applied for humanitarian parole for his family, a rare form of immigration relief that permits otherwise inadmissible individuals to come to America for an urgent humanitarian reason. Muradi’s friends at Hampshire and Tufts built a convincing case. They had bank statements proving the family would not be a financial burden on the U.S. government. They had the support of the entire congressional delegation from Massachusetts, as well as Fletcher Dean James Stavridis, F83, F84, a former NATO supreme allied commander.
“I met with Arslan every semester throughout his time here and enjoyed every meeting as we tried to work on these seemingly intractable problems,” Stavridis said. “It was always clear that this would be an uphill struggle.” The Department of Homeland Security rejected Muradi’s appeal. Twice.
That was when Muradi started considering a different country for his family. Turkish classmates at Fletcher told him that if his family purchased a house in Turkey, they would have a chance of establishing residency there. Team Muradi rallied once again and raised over $130,000 for a home in Istanbul. Muradi’s family is now safely settled there. “The level of camaraderie from the Fletcher alumni was breathtaking,” Muradi said, “and I am eternally grateful for their support.”
As for Muradi himself, he finished his Fletcher coursework in December 2016 and was granted asylum on January 15. That means he can apply for a green card next year, which will finally allow him to travel to Istanbul and reunite with the family he has not seen since 2013. “My sister was 6, 7 years old when I left, and now she’s almost 11. I’ve seen her grow up in pictures,” Muradi said. “I really dream of the day when I’m able to get on a plane and knock on the front door and see my family.”
Kristin Hunt is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.