Massume Zaki's Search for Safety and Knowledge
Amid the Taliban's takeover, Afghan professor Massume Zaki finds refuge and hope through the Scholars at Risk program at EPFL, as she navigates the challenges of exile and dreams of a safer homeland.
In the summer of 2021, American forces withdraw from the country, leaving it in the hands of the Taliban. Massume Zaki, assistant professor at the Kabul Polytechnical University, fears the worst but continues to teach in an increasingly hostile environment. Then the unimaginable happens.
“When the Taliban began taking over provinces, my husband and I became concerned. We felt threatened. On my way to teach one day, I discovered the Taliban had arrived in Kabul. They stood guard at the university's entrance, barring any women. This forced me to return home, witnessing chaos and panic along the way,” recounts Massume.
On my way to teach one day, I discovered the Taliban had arrived in Kabul. They stood guard at the university's entrance, barring any women.
Soon after that fateful day, Massume gathers her family – her husband and their two children – and flees by bus to Iran. The conditions in Iran are extremely difficult and her husband manages to secure safe passage to Stockholm, but in the midst of the chaos an email arrives from EPFL. Even before the Taliban took over the country, Massume had applied to doctoral program at EPFL. But as the situation got worse, she also applied to the Scholars at Risk program with the hopes of going anywhere she could to continue her studies. As EPFL is part of the program, the conditions finally came together for her to study in Lausanne.
She had been accepted to EPFL but faced a cornelian dilemma: split her family up and leave with her two children to Lausanne to continue her studies or move to Stockholm.
“Thankfully, the people at EPFL, the staff at the Laboratory of Nanophotonics and Metrology (NAM) and the Scholars at Risk program were a tremendous support in helping me adjust. The assistance I received, such as finding accommodation and flexibility in my work schedule, made a significant difference. It was import for me to establish myself first and then to help my children adapt to a new environment,” adds Massume.
Once settled in Lausanne, Massume is able to expand her research in nanophotonics. “At NAM, I was first trained on numerical tools for the simulation of the optical response of plasmonic nanostructures. Then I was trained at EPFL’s state-of-the-art Centre for MicroNanoTechnology (CMI) for the nanofabrication of structures using a broad variety of techniques and materials.” Some of the structures Massume fabricated are currently used in a collaboration with the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Kolkata.
I was trained at EPFL’s state-of-the-art Centre for MicroNanoTechnology (CMI) for the nanofabrication of structures using a broad variety of techniques and materials.
But things are far from easy for Massume and her family in the Lake Leman region. While she is thriving under the supervision of Professor Olivier Martin, her children are finding it hard to make friends without understanding the French language.
“But even in these tough times, I can see a bit of hope for safety and a better future for me and my family, which can help me to feel strong. I left to protect myself and my loved ones from the dangers of the war. I left to keep my family safe, but I still worry about those I left behind,” Massume says with a spirit of hope tainted by fear for those who are still in Afghanistan.
The ban on women from education, including the university, is still in effect in Afghanistan. Massume is worried about the mental wellbeing of women who were on track to graduate and are now stuck at home without the possibility to study. Internet is often offline and very expensive when working, the economy has collapsed and books are close to impossible to find. “I’ve been in contact with some of my students and they really feel depressed because before Taliban they went to university. Now they cannot even go outside unaccompanied, so they just stay at home,” says Massume.
Academic freedom is at risk not only in Afghanistan but in other conflict zones around the world. This is where the Scholars at Risk program plays an essential role in supporting academics in continuing their careers in other universities.
“Supporting programs like Scholars at Risk is crucial. The protection and assistance they offer to scholars in need are invaluable. There are still many scholars in Afghanistan and worldwide who require help and protection. Anyone who is able to contribute, I encourage them to provide assistance and support. Their contributions can make a significant difference in the lives of these scholars and contribute to the preservation of academic freedom and the exchange of ideas,” Massume says in unequivocal support for a program that has given her hope in trying times.
Supporting programs like Scholars at Risk is crucial. The protection and assistance they offer to scholars in need are invaluable. Anyone who is able to contribute, I encourage them to provide assistance and support.
In order for the family to be together, Massume and her two children have joined her husband in Stockholm, and she has found a research position at Gothenburg University. But her desire to return to her home country is palpable as she concludes the conversation: “While Kabul may lack the beauty and amenities of Lausanne and Stockholm, it holds a unique significance for me. It's the city where I lived, worked, and saw my people striving for education and a better future for themselves and their society. I truly wish that someday our country becomes safe once more and becomes once again a place where one’s dreams can actually come true. This way, both I and anyone who had to leave can one day hopefully return.”