On the morning of August 15th, 2021, as Taliban fighters arrived at the gates of Kabul after sweeping across Afghanistan in less than 10 days, Dr Aziz Mohibbi drove to work in the city of Bamyan, about 200km west of the capital.
The environmental engineer and former chancellor of Bamyan University had sent his family into a nearby mountain village the day before the Afghan government collapsed into Taliban hands. Like many, he strongly believed in the months and weeks leading up to the takeover that the governing authorities would withstand the Taliban offensive. He even went ahead and planned an academic conference at Bamyan University for August 15th. However, that morning he awoke to a nation in turmoil.
“I drove myself into the university that Sunday,” Mohibbi says. “I checked all the entrances to the building, asked all the drivers to get any vehicles out of the university and then made sure everything was locked. “All I kept thinking was we had lost everything. When I heard things were collapsing I knew my life and my community would totally change. I was really confused, to be honest. I almost lost my way of thinking.”
When Taliban officials came to monitor the area, every girl was holding a religious book in their hands. However, they were actually studying mathematics and chemistry
Mohibbi knew he was a prime target for the Taliban. A leading academic in the region, he ran programmes at the university that prioritised the training and hiring of women academics and had also spoken out publicly against Taliban rule. As soon as he learned the Taliban had taken control of Kabul, he started contacting friends and colleagues around the globe.
The son of teachers, Mohibbi was destined to end up working in education. His late father, who worked for the Bamyan department of education in the early 2000s, spent most of the 1990s trying to ensure children had access to proper schooling despite the Taliban’s control of the country. “They called it cluster education; they did it hiding because the Taliban did not allow girls to study. When Taliban officials came to monitor the area, every girl was holding a religious book in their hands. However, they were actually studying mathematics and chemistry.”
In 1999, Mohibbi, who was 20 years old and working as a teacher, briefly went into hiding in the mountains with his father because of threats from the Taliban. Two years later US forces entered Afghanistan, and by the end of 2001 the ruling Taliban regime had collapsed. Mohibbi moved to Kabul to study for a degree in forestry and natural resources before becoming a lecturer at the university’s school of agriculture.
Mohibbi was in his early 20s when he married his wife, Arifa, in a union arranged by his parents. He feels extremely grateful to her for raising their children while he focused on his studies and career.
I knew I was a target. But if you’re connected with good people, they will try to save your life
In 2009 he moved to Thailand, to study for a master’s at the Asian Institute of Technology, before returning to work at Kabul University and taking up a consultancy role with the UN environment programme in Afghanistan. In 2014 he moved abroad again, to study in Japan, then returned to his job with the UN in 2018.
Four years later, when the Taliban took control of Kabul, Mohibbi immediately started receiving concerned messages from friends and former colleagues overseas, including an Irish UN colleague.
“I told them I was still alive but I needed their help. I knew I was a target. But if you’re connected with good people, they will try to save your life.”
In the weeks that followed, as Mohibbi awaited news about visas, he was called to meet Taliban officials. “Most of their questions were about why boys and girls were studying together in the same classes. They also kept asking about the university money. They thought we’d have cash, but I explained the money was in the bank. They also thought we had weapons in the university. I had to explain we were not a military organisation but an educational institute.”
Aside from his concern about his family’s safety, Mohibbi felt increasingly disheartened about the future of education in Bamyan. “I was seeing the empty classrooms in the university, and I lost hope for the future of my students. I also felt like I wasn’t useful any more; I couldn’t do anything for my community.”
Maynooth is now working with Ukrainians and could be a leading university in this area if they had the budget. What they’re doing is very unique: they’re saving people’s lives
On August 27th, Mohibbi, his mother, his sister, his wife and their six children secured visa waivers to come to Ireland after Mary Lawlor, the founder of Front Line Defenders, joined Dr Roja Fazaeli of Trinity College Dublin and Trinity’s provost, Dr Linda Doyle, in calling on the Irish Government to help the family. Mohibbi also received significant support from the Scholars at Risk programme at Maynooth University and from former UN colleagues in securing new passports and travelling to Pakistan.
The family eventually arrived in Ireland in late December, following a long wait for Pakistani visas and a nerve-racking few hours when they were almost unable to cross the Afghan border into Pakistan.
They spent their first month in Ireland in an Airbnb in Phibsborough, in north Dublin, organised by the academics who had secured their passage, followed by a week in the home of a Trinity professor in Wexford. “It was my children’s first experience of seeing the sea,” says Mohibbi with a smile. “They were so happy.”
The family have been living in Maynooth since February 2022, and four of the children are attending local schools. Mohibbi’s 20-year-old daughter starts college this month; she hopes to become a doctor. His 18-year-old is studying in Germany.
We’re very happy in our community, and people are kind, but my wife and mother feel isolated because they don’t speak English. My wife is learning the language, but my mother especially misses Afghanistan. She still has family there
Mohibbi, now a Maynooth University Scholars at Risk fellow, is working as a researcher there and hopes to begin teaching soon. He says Maynooth University’s programme “should be a model for the whole country”. “Maynooth is now working with Ukrainians and could be a leading university in this area if they had the budget. What they’re doing is unique: they’re saving people’s lives.”
Mohibbi and his children have settled well into life in Ireland, but his wife and mother are finding integration more difficult. “We’re very happy in our community, and people are kind, but they feel isolated because they don’t speak English. My wife is learning the language, but my mother especially misses Afghanistan. She still has family there.”
He feels relieved that his children are in a safe place but worries that, the longer they spend outside Afghanistan, the less connected they will feel to the country of their birth. “I’m happy my daughters and sons can study equally here, but in the future they will not understand Afghan culture. It’s not bad for them, but it feels bad for me, the one who raised them.”
Mohibbi also feels despondent about the future of Afghanistan. “Over 20 years the Afghan government worked with international allies to achieve real change. But all that is gone in one year with the Taliban takeover. Everything has collapsed, the future of higher education is dark, the economic situation is very bad and there are ethnic problems as well. They’ve disconnected Afghanistan from the rest of the world.”