07 June 2023

As the Taliban took over town after town in Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, Mohammad Sajjad Afsharzada finally realised that he had to flee for his life. Now he is in Sweden, where Linköping University has accepted him through the international network Scholars at risk. But the future for Sajjad and his wife is uncertain.

Man in front of a window, looking worried.
Had I stayed in Afghanistan the taliban would have killed me, says Mohammad Sajjad Afsharzada. Anna Nilsen

From his temporary office in the Division of Social Work, Sajjad has a beautiful view of Norrköping and the Motala Ström river. It's a long way from Afghanistan, but his mind is constantly wandering between the old life and the new.

“We have a lot of different emotions. Sometimes we are sad, sometimes happy,” he observes.

Since February, he has held a one-year post at Linköping University through Scholars at Risk (SAR), an international network of universities committed to supporting academic freedom worldwide, including by giving sanctuary to researchers who are at risk of being imprisoned or killed in their home country.
LiU is a new member and Sajjad is the first such scholar to come to the university. He and his wife Wahideh have got a flat in Norrköping. She is trained in family law but is currently at home waiting to receive a personal identity number.

A turbulent time

In less than two years, their lives have been completely turned upside down. Before they came to Sweden, Sajjad taught at the University of Herat in northwestern Afghanistan. The capital city of Kabul is two hours away by plane. He worked in research, educational projects at schools and held couples therapy at a clinic. It was a good life, he says.
But in 2021, the Taliban returned to power after the US-led troops left the country, and the new rulers do not accept psychology as a science. This had consequences for Sajjad and his colleagues.

“They accused us of spreading useless and harmful knowledge and of corrupting people’s minds. As I was teaching couple and family therapy, they warned me several times to stop. When I refused, they threatened me with death. Finally, my family convinced me to escape to Iran.”

There he and his wife stayed for a year and a half until the opportunity to go to Sweden arose. Many other members of his family have also fled and are scattered around the world. Two brothers are in the Netherlands, an uncle is in Germany and two siblings are in Iran. Only his mother, father, a sister and a brother remain in Afghanistan.

Loss, sadness and gratitude

Two men at a table, drinking tea.Sajjad's mentor, Axel Ågren, with Afghan, saffron-scented tea. Photo credit Anna Nilsen He comes from a somewhat unusual Afghan family. His parents are not university-educated, but they have always been open-minded and given their children freedom, he says. All his siblings have been able to choose their own path in life: one is a surgeon, some have chosen artistic professions, another is a psychologist just like Sajjad.
He talks to his family every day on the phone. Naturally, his parents are very sad. They have told him that the Taliban have been at their house looking for him. But, amid the sadness and sense of loss, he is grateful for the support he has received in Sweden.

He has two mentors at the university who will help him settle in and integrate into society. One of them is Axel Ågren at the Division of Social Work at the Department of Culture and Society.

“We’ve arranged some evening activities and then there are also some practical things. I helped him with his electricity subscription, for example. He is also in the final stages of his thesis so everything around him has to work, you must feel comfortable and get support from colleagues.”

Prepared to move on

A new country, a foreign culture, and a foreign language. There is a lot to contend with, including the uncertainty surrounding what will happen in a year when his position at Linköping University ends and his doctoral thesis that needs to be written.
Meanwhile, Sajjad thinks that he and his wife are adjusting well. In their spare time, they can go into town, go to the swimming pool or out into the countryside. Despite the problems, he does not forget to smile and enjoy the arrival of spring.

Man on roof terrace with city view.Sajjad is happy that wintertime is finally over. Photo credit Anna Nilsen He hopes that one day Afghanistan will be free and that he will be able to return. Until then, he has some hope of being allowed to stay in Sweden, but is fully prepared that he and his wife may have to move on. As a trained psychologist, he is used to examining both his own behavior and that of others. This knowledge has changed him for the better, he says.

“I love psychology because it tries to help people. I love to talk to the students and to make them think. I speak about what is good behaviour in society.”

And he gives a basic definition of what that is:

“Don´t kill another human being.”

Translation: Simon Phillips

Short facts: Scholars at risk

Founded in 1999

Founded at the University of Chicago in 1999. The network headquarters relocated to New YorkUniversity in 2003.

650 members

Since then, more than 650 higher education institutions in over 40 countries havejoined.

One-year post

LiU has the capacity to receive a few researchers per year. Due to Swedish employmentregulations, they can only be offered employment for one year.

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