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Berkeley raises funds to welcome endangered Afghan scholars

Woman protesting with raised fist

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona via Unsplash

By Abby Cohn

The UC Berkeley campus sprang into action soon after the world got its first glimpse of the shocking and chaotic scenes of Kabul falling to the Taliban.

Fearful for the safety of Afghan scholars under Taliban rule, a team of campus staff, students, and faculty launched an online campaign to help at-risk journalists, lawyers, and other academics flee their country and find intellectual sanctuary at Berkeley.

When Afghanistan Emergency Response went live on the university’s Berkeley Crowdfunding site on August 19, word of it quickly spread on social media and other channels of communication. As of September 16, the program raised a record $250,000 — an amount that will be supplemented by an additional $100,000 from the Vice Chancellor for Research Opportunity Fund. Nearly 1,400 donors, including many parents of Berkeley students, stepped up with contributions ranging from $10 to $10,000.

“You can see how people from all different walks of life really have been impacted by the news coming out of Afghanistan, and you can see how incredibly people can pull together in moments of crisis like this,” says Alexa Koenig, executive director of Berkeley’s Human Rights Center (HRC), which partnered in these efforts with the UC Berkeley Afghan Student Association and San Jose State’s Human Rights Institute.

The outpouring of support from the Cal community and beyond includes a flood of offers of housing, clothing, and translation services. Dozens of Berkeley Law students volunteered to help Afghan refugees navigate the legal paperwork needed to evacuate. And Chancellor Carol Christ waived all campus fees associated with the fundraiser.

Coordinating with organizations such as the international Scholars at Risk network, the HRC has been trying to bring six scholars-at-risk and their families to Berkeley so they have at least a temporary academic home on campus. Those Afghans include a prominent female journalist and a law school dean who has previously received death threats. Three scholars and their families have not yet been evacuated.

For women, “just to go out is a huge risk, let alone to try to make it across borders without visas,” says Koenig.

Junior Yasmine Ebrat, president of Berkeley’s Afghan student group, says many of the campus’s 120 to 160 Afghan students have parents, siblings, and other immediate relatives who have gone into hiding in Afghanistan because they are academics and other potential targets. “It’s such a difficult situation,” says Ebrat, whose group is serving as a resource for affected students.

Berkeley’s ability to swiftly mobilize in a crisis inspired other universities to ask campus staffers for guidance and create similar efforts. UC campuses at Santa Cruz, Los Angeles, Irvine, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Davis are among those that have followed Berkeley’s lead. Koenig hopes Berkeley’s model will enable hundreds of endangered scholars to find safe haven at campuses across California.

“Just being able to be nimble and responsive at Berkeley was really key,” says Ryan Lawrence, who manages Berkeley Crowdfunding as the campus’s associate director of digital philanthropy. Along with establishing the fundraiser in record time, Lawrence’s group helped promote it widely.

Created in 2015, Berkeley Crowdfunding was one of the first university-based digital fundraising platforms and has served as a blueprint for many higher education institutions. It hosts 60 to 80 campaigns annually, seeking support for everything from club sports teams to a webcam for viewing peregrine falcon chicks atop the Campanile. The next round of projects will be introduced in late September.

Though the campaigns typically expire after 30 days, the Afghan program will remain evergreen on Berkeley Crowdfunding. “This is a really important moment for helping others,” Koenig says.

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