Afghani Family Who Helped U.S. Uplifted by FDU’s Global Reach

At graduation time we celebrate the individual accomplishments of the graduates and their prospects for a brighter future they have created through their commitment and discipline. But at the same time, the ritual is  a celebration of the power of a wider community to nurture—a concentric circle of care that uplifts and can transform lives.

That will be especially true today at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s graduation at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands when Hashmat Vejdani, 35, gets his Master of Arts and Global Affairs from FDU’s School of Public and Global Affairs. Up until March of this year, Hashmat, who worked as a translator for the United States in Afghanistan, was living in hiding in a safe house in Pakistan with his wife Najia and their three children ages 10, eight and six years old.

Hashmat, and his family had been in that safe house for two and a half years while he continued his course of study at FDU very remotely until he only recently qualified for a refugee resettlement program which brought them to South Carolina.

Vejdani is a chemistry teacher, a journalist as well as a staunch advocate for educating women, a position that puts him very much at odds with the Taliban that now rules Afghanistan. Like tens of thousands of other Afghans who worked with the U.S., he and his family were left behind in August of 2021 when President Biden opted to order the last troops out of Afghanistan, ending America’s longest war.

The American departure was marred by a catastrophic suicide bombing that killed 13 American military personnel and more than 100 Afghans, made all the more horrific because they were trying to leave.

By 2021, when the U.S. finalized its exit, despite hundreds of billions of dollars invested in Afghanistan’s military, the national defense forces collapsed immediately. Testifying before Congress a month after the catastrophe, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testified “the fact that the Afghan army we and our partners trained simply melted away – in many cases without firing a shot – took us all by surprise.”

Back in 2022, NBC News reported the U.S. had only evacuated about three percent of the Afghans like Hashmat that who were working with the United States, leaving an estimated 78,000 behind.

It was only thanks to Vejdani’s virtual FDU ‘family’ he meet only online that the chemistry teacher, his wife and three young children were able to escape to Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. exit and the rapid Taliban takeover. And it was that same  FDU ‘family’ that used a GoFundMe page to raise over $40,000 to sustain the family while they were in hiding having entered Pakistan illegally without visas.

Peter Woolley is the founding director of FDU’s School of Public and Global Affairs where Vejdani was enrolled before the U.S. exit in the midst of the COVID pandemic.

“The Master of  Arts and Global Affairs is a niche program with  about 25 people,”  Woolley told InsiderNJ.  “It’s a niche program for consular officials or UN mission officials but we make exceptions for people if they kind of fit the profile which Hashmat did.”

The master’s program addresses topics like China as a world power, the development of Africa, modern warfare and Middle East politics.

As events were rapidly deteriorating on the ground in Afghanistan, Woolley recalls he was approached by his assistant Christie Innes who asked what FDU could do to help Vejdani and his family who were sure to be targeted by the Taliban.

“Initially, I said no, we are just a bunch of academics and you are talking about a major political movement taking over Afghanistan and the Americans are withdrawing and it’s a large scale collapse,” Woolley said. “Then I thought about it and it occurred to me that this was New Jersey and in New Jersey we all ‘know a guy’ who ‘knows guys’” who can get things done.

In Woolley’s case that ‘guy’ was FDU alumnus Michael Moss, who is on the executive council of FDU’s School of Public and Global Affairs that’s chaired by former Gov. Jon Corzine.

Within days of the bloody U.S. exit from Afghanistan, Moss, who has global trade contacts, had enlisted boots on the ground to get Vejdani and his entire family out of Afghanistan on a bus and into Pakistan, albeit without visas and vulnerable to being rounded up by Pakistani intelligence and deported back to  what was now a Taliban run Afghanistan.

“The Taliban went to Hashmat’s house and his parent’s house searching for him within days of him getting out,” Woolley says. “Hashmat sent us footage of what was going on with people in trucks rolling down the streets shooting off their guns.”

In a phone interview with InsiderNJ, Vejdani said he only has a vague memory of an Afghanistan that was not at war. “It’s just a little bit of a recollection—I was in grade school,” he recalls.

He continued. “When I graduated from university I started a job as a chemistry teacher in a girls school. I was working on improving my English and one of my friends suggested I go to work as a translator for the American military.”

During that period Vejdani was also working as a journalist very much engaged in the community participating in United Nations conferences and seminars on human rights. “First I was publishing stories about education and participating in media discussions where I expressed support for the freedom of expression—for women’s rights—for human rights in Afghanistan.”

Vejdani is an observant Muslim who believes in an open and democratic society who says he  finds support for his position on women’s rights and education in the Koran, Islam’s foundational text.

“Islam gives us the right of education to women and girls. The first word of the Koran is Iqra means to read—to educate,” Vejdani says. “The Taliban just use  their view of Islam as a tool for their  own [self-serving] purposes.”

While the tragic images of the chaotic American exit represent a particularly dark day, Vejdani says there is a potentially empowering legacy that endures as a consequence of America’s 20 year presence in that country that might set the stage for a more pluralistic  Afghanistan.

When Vejdani initially taught English in his provincial village “most of the families didn’t send their daughters to the classes but right now, after 20 years of the United States being in Afghanistan [promoting the education of women] we have hundreds of doctors in the provinces who are ladies—so, we changed our ideas—the U.S. being in Afghanistan changed the minds of the people.”

That widening in the horizons for women resulted in girls contemplating “that one day they could be President of Afghanistan or a judge,” Vejdani says. “But what really concerns me is what will the situation be like after five or 10 years of Taliban rule?”

According to the United Nations, between the Taliban takeover and “devastating earthquakes” last October the economy has “basically collapsed” with 69 percent of Afghans  subsistence insecure  “meaning they do not have enough basic resources.”

“Since the takeover by the Taliban in 2021, the Afghan economy has contracted by 27 per cent, leading to economic stagnation, according to UNDP,” according to a UN analysis. “Unemployment has doubled and only 40 per cent of the population has access to electricity.”

Vejdani says the Taliban’s response to the economic decline is to continue to raise taxes on the population and the remaining businesses.

“If you have food, if you don’t have food, the Taliban doesn’t care,” he asserted. And while his country is rich in fossil fuels, copper, cobalt, silver and rare earth elements like lithium, Vejdani worries these natural  resources estimated to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars won’t benefit the people of Afghanistan.

“I would like to start teaching chemistry in the United States but I want to get my PHD and participate in programs to tell people about what is going on in Afghanistan even as the Taliban continues to put restrictions on the media and they will not allow the media to broadcast the reality of life there to the world,” Vejdani says.

Landing in South Carolina close to Clemson University has been an emotional experience for the chemistry teacher/journalist/ human rights campaigner.

“My children’s teachers have all been so kind, my neighbors all the people—the most important thing for me after these three years is that my children are going to school,” Vejdani says. “ A professor at Clemson even helped me get a library card at the university.”

“You just don’t know what you can do, until you try,” Woolley told InsiderNJ. “If somebody walked up to me and said, ‘you know what—you are going to get a student and his entire family out of Afghanistan—you are going to maintain them in a safe house for two and a half years—and he and is family will come to the United States—I would say where did you get those mushrooms.”

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