In August 2021, Sharifa Sharifi was working as general manager of the Afghan National Gallery in Herat, Afghanistan’s third largest city, when the government collapsed and the Taliban took control of her country. As an employee of the fallen government, a professional woman, an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, and an artist whose paintings celebrated the female body, Sharifa, who goes by the name Elja, knew her life was in grave danger.
“I didn’t feel safe,” Elja says. “I couldn’t believe that night when, among the noise of bombs, shootings, and rockets, our beautiful Herat fell. Although I was still alive, I had become like the walking dead. I decided that I had to get out of the country. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I had to.”
After a harrowing month of hiding out in the homes of various family members and stashing dozens of her paintings in attics, Elja was able to leave the country by pretending to be part of a friend’s family who had visas to travel to Iran.
“My friend has a husband and some children. Like a family, we covered our faces. Fortunately, the Taliban didn’t look inside the car. They only asked my friend’s husband for our passports, stamped them, and we were able to cross the border.” she explains.
Once in Iran, her friend introduced her to an American colleague who helped Elja submit her documents to Cornell. She applied to work as a visiting scholar at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, and was accepted. But because Afghan banks had been closed, Elja had no way to pay for her travel. With the promise of matching funds from Cornell, she spent the next several months working to secure a fellowship from the Institute of International Education’s (IIE) Artist’s Protection Fund.
In August 2022—one year after the Taliban takeover sent her fleeing for her life—Elja arrived in Ithaca and was welcomed into the home of a Cornell faculty member and to her new role at the Johnson Museum. Elja is now working with the Afghanistan Assistance Clinic run by Cornell Law School to process her asylum application, a complex effort that could ultimately grant her the right to remain in the U.S.
“In Afghanistan, women’s names are kept hidden—they should not be mentioned in public because it is an insult to a woman’s family. When a woman gets married, the name of the groom is on the invitation, but not the name of the bride. Only the father’s name appears on a child’s birth certificate. When she dies, a woman is mentioned only in reference to her husband, son, or brother, but her name is not written or spoken. A friend of mine started a campaign in 2017 to break this taboo. We started by claiming our own names and the names of our mothers. For example, I am Sharifa, daughter of Samea.”
Jessica Martinez, director of the Johnson Museum, helped Elja to secure another one-year fellowship through the Open Society University Network. The fellowship will allow Elja to remain at Cornell, where she’s safe. Here, she’s free to pursue her work as an artist and advocate for the rights of women, especially for those left behind in Afghanistan—like her 15-year-old sister.
Making the Cornell connection
Since the fall of 2021, Cornell has welcomed five Afghan scholars, including Elja, and more than 20 Afghan students. In partnership with IIE, Cornell has been able to offer scholars and students at risk in their home countries the opportunity to continue their research and studies in a welcoming, safe, and supportive academic community. This is part of the Global Cornell’s Scholars Under Threat (SUT) initiative, led by Wendy Wolford, vice provost for international affairs.
Nishi Dhupa, associate vice provost for international affairs, has been at the forefront of the effort, and she reports that several more Afghan students will matriculate in fall 2023.
“We are working closely with campus and community partners to bring holistic support to bear around these individuals—recognizing that we will have to provide ongoing support and funding,” Nishi explains. “Our campus community has been wonderful, providing everything from swim lessons, to bikes, to rides to doctor’s appointments, to jobs, to English conversation hours, to general advice and care.”
Nishi wrote this synopsis in her report to an alumna who is helping to fill the gaps in traditional financial aid and grant funding: Nell Cady-Kruse ’83, MBA ’85.
Since fall 2021, Nell has donated funds to cover the cost of laptops, medical care, winter clothing, English language support, and more for Cornell’s Afghan students and scholars. Nell is one of several donors who have supported Global Cornell’s Scholars Under Threat program.
Nell is also supporting the action behind the scenes at the Law School’s Afghanistan Assistance Clinic. She loves that Cornell law students have the opportunity to do hands-on work in the immigration space and experience firsthand the challenges of our current system.
“The asylum process is very paperwork intensive,” Nell observes. “It’s a lot to slog through, and it’s frustrating. For the law students, this challenge will impress them forever. And I hope they’ll be able to make some positive change,” she says.
Nell, who spent her formative years in Ithaca, says that having a global perspective was part of her upbringing. She was a ‘townie,’ and her father K. Bingham Cady was a professor of nuclear engineering in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and former associate dean.
After earning an undergraduate degree from the Dyson School and an MBA from the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, Nell spent more than three decades working in global financial services, banking, and risk management in the U.S., Europe, Middle East, Africa, and Asia, with a focus on emerging markets. Over the years, Nell has been a founding supporter of Cornell’s Emerging Markets Institute at the SC Johnson College of Business.
Wanting to do better
Nell says her curiosity led her to attend a Cornell Club of Los Angeles alumni event back in 2015, a talk featuring Steve Miska MBA ’99, a former military officer who served in senior leadership roles in Iraq. Steve spoke about the Iraqi and Afghan citizens who collaborated with U.S. forces during our long conflicts in their countries. They did this at great personal risk to themselves and their families, with the understanding that they would be eligible to apply for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to the U.S. at the end of their service.
Steve recounted how, at the time, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad would not allow Iraqis to conduct visa interviews, citing security precautions. So the interpreters—many of whom had received personal threats—had to come up with alibis to get to the American Embassy in Jordan. Dozens who worked alongside Steve and his team eventually made it to the U.S. by following this route. Steve wrote Baghdad Underground Railroad: Saving American Allies in Iraq about his experiences helping interpreters escape sectarian violence and resettle in the U.S.
Nell recalls listening to this story and thinking to herself, “How can this be so screwed up? Being a citizen who cares about what’s going on in the world and the U.S. role in conflicts abroad, I became—and remain—engaged,” she says.
After the talk, Steve introduced Nell to the non-profit No One Left Behind (NOLB). NOLB has been spearheading the effort to honor the U.S. commitment to SIV-eligible Iraqis and Afghans. There are currently 152,000 SIV applicants left behind in Afghanistan, according a high-ranking State Department official who reported this figure to Congress in April 2023.
Nell describes herself as a consummate problem solver. The Afghan story captured her attention because Afghan allies, scholars, professional women, and anyone who stood up for human rights in general, were all in danger. “It seemed to me that we ought to be able to do better,” she says.
Steve also sponsored Nell to serve on to the Pacific Council for International Policy, an LA-based think tank focused on addressing international challenges. In the critical days following the fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021, Nell joined other Pacific Council members to create a rapid response 24/7 operations center, where they worked to connect international non-profits with what Nell calls ‘action figures’ (people on the ground in Afghanistan) to safely evacuate those at risk.
Small giving, big impact
A few weeks after the Taliban takeover, Nell read about the efforts of various universities to open their doors to Afghan students and scholars at risk. Then she reached out to an old friend at Cornell, Catheryn Obern MS ’81, PhD ’87. Nell asked Catheryn, who serves as director of international development, what Cornell was doing to help. Within a few days, Catheryn reported back about the Global Cornell Scholars Under Threat initiative and the Afghanistan Assistance Clinic (AAC) in the Law School.
At first glance, Nell was skeptical of the ability of the law clinic to successfully negotiate the lengthy asylum process. But when she learned that the clinic was overseen by immigration law experts Stephen Yale-Loehr and Hilary Fraser JD ’91, she felt sure that supporting both programs was an excellent investment.
Hilary reports that the AAC has made “terrific” progress since its launch in spring 2022.
“The Taliban’s announcements that floggings and amputations were legitimate punishments; that women could not work, attend high school, leave home without a chaperone or visit parks and gyms; that universities were shuttered, the internet policed, passport offices closed and ‘vice’ and religion fastidiously monitored did not pose just future possibilities of harm, but rather defined the lives our clients had lived,” she says. “Our clinic exists because our donor didn’t look away.”
Over the past eighteen months, the AAC has filed more than 30 asylum cases. All of AAC’s fall semester clients have now received work permits, and all of their spring semester clients have qualified for online work permit applications. In March 2023, AAC students also partnered with Catholic Charities to do a day of service at immigration court in New York City.
These are a few of the asylum cases the clinic worked on in spring 2023:
- A client whose U.S. visa was obtained just in time for her to escape a forced marriage and land in a top mathematics PhD program in the U.S.
- A client whose parents had suffered beatings and death threats under the Taliban and who escaped to Iran, where treatment of Afghans is not much better
- A client whose transition to atheism is clearly recalled in a series of private conversations with peers and mentors, two of whom were murdered in honor killings pursuant to a fatwa
“Twelve of our 15 clients this semester are scholars or students at Cornell,” says Hilary. “We made the Cornell connection, and it felt good to be helping a ‘neighbor.’”
The Cornell connection extends from Nell to Elja, and beyond. When Elja learned about Nell—whose behind-the-scenes philanthropy has directly helped her start a new life in Ithaca—she said:
“I hope I can meet her in person and thank her. She saved our lives. We—I and the other Afghans at Cornell—are also supporting our families now. When she helps us, she helps all of us, too. Many people.”
“It’s money that I enjoy giving,” Nell says. “A great outcome of my story would be to inspire others to help, too, and see that a small investment in the right place can make a big difference.”