Afghan scholar faces Taliban threats in pursuit of freedom

By Cam Buchan

The Taliban casts a long shadow.

In August 2021, the political landscape in Afghanistan took a dark turn with the Taliban's return to power, reversing two decades of progress in human rights and education. The new authorities quickly imposed strict policies and practices that, among many human rights violations, denied female students and scholars their rights to education and academic freedom.

That shadow also reached into the personal and academic life of Dr. Nasar Ahmad Shayan, MD, PhD, and his family.

Shayan was a dedicated academic, actively pursuing a research career at Hacettepe University in Turkey. However, he found himself facing a different future due to grave concerns for his family's safety.

Shayan's brothers had held important positions within the Afghan republic government. One served as a prosecutor in the fight against drug smuggling and another worked within the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). With the collapse of the government and the rise of the Taliban, they chose to travel abroad to other countries to ensure their safety. Shayan realized that the Taliban could exploit his presence in Afghanistan to take him hostage and leverage his position to gain control over his brothers. Under the Taliban system, a crime attributed to you belongs to all of your family.

Furthermore, beyond the immediate security threats, there were mounting challenges faced by professors and researchers in Afghanistan. They were experiencing increasing limitations on their academic freedom, with a decreasing level of respect and recognition for their valuable contributions to knowledge and research. For Shayan, posting a photo of his professor – a woman – on social media intensified the Taliban’s threat. This innocent post placed his entire family in danger and forced Shayan to make some difficult decisions.

“Meeting with a woman at the university, that is not acceptable to the Taliban. I couldn’t accept this,” said Shayan. “But when you say something that the Taliban disapproves of, you can disappear, and we won’t know what happened to you. We have experience of this happening to academic people, as well.”

Shayan was advised by a colleague to contact Scholars at Risk (SAR), an organization that works to protect threatened scholars and promote academic freedom around the world. With help from SAR, Shayan and his wife and son went to Pakistan for four months before coming to Western in November 2022. Now his work continues in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics under the direction of Dr. Amardeep Thind, MD, PhD, Professor in Epidemiology, Biostatistics, Family Medicine, and Public Health, and director of the Master of Public Health Program, and Dr. Saverio Stranges, MD, PhD, Professor and Chair of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, with cross-appointment in the Departments of Family Medicine and Medicine..

While settled at Western, a return to his home country does not seem possible for Shayan: “Living in Afghanistan at this time is impossible.”

A journey of risk and research

Shayan's risky research journey has taken him from the medical facilities of Herat University in Afghanistan to completing a PhD program in public health at Hacettepe University in 2018. Along the way, his research has focused on the risk factors of chronic diseases in Afghanistan, such as cardiovascular disease, vascular disease, and cancer. He recognized that, while chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and cancer were major concerns in developed countries, infectious diseases like tuberculosis and hepatitis B pose a significant threat in low-income and developing nations.

Shayan's research sheds light on these pressing health issues facing his home country. One study, published in the Turkish Journal of Public Health, examined mortality risk factors among COVID-19 patients in Herat, Afghanistan, and revealed the need for improved health-care facilities, especially in rural areas, to reduce disease-related mortality rates.

In another study published in the Archives of Iranian Medicine, Shayan explored the risk factors associated with esophageal cancer in the Herat Province. The research uncovered significant associations with low body mass index (BMI), low socio-economic status, family history of esophageal cancer, consumption of very hot beverages and dark tea, as well as a local food known as qulurtoroosh. The findings highlighted the urgent need for further research and protective measures to address the high prevalence of esophageal cancer in the region.

Additionally, Shayan investigated family planning practices in Herat City, Afghanistan, in a study published in the Meandros Medical and Dental Journal. The findings revealed low utilization of family planning methods among women of reproductive age, indicating a need for increased support, education, and awareness about the benefits of contraception.

Even though he has just arrived at Western, Shayan is already making an impact.

Stranges values the perspective of international researchers, such as Shayan.

“Our department and our programs are very open minded, and we have a very diverse group of scholars and students. Nasar is a nice addition to our department in terms of his knowledge and his diversity,” Stranges said. “The values that he brings, coming from a difficult setting like Afghanistan to our public health program are very important. We need to have that kind of global perspective.”

Shayan acknowledges the assistance provided by SAR in facilitating his safe journey to Canada. However, he remains deeply concerned about the safety and well-being of those who have escaped the Taliban, including their families.

“The growing communication between world governments and the Taliban raises serious safety concerns for individuals who have fled the Taliban regime,” said Shayan. “Moreover, such communication may inadvertently reinforce the misguided notion that the Taliban's oppressive treatment and restrictions on women are justified.”

Despite the challenges he faced and the tumultuous events that forced him to leave his home country, Shayan remains determined to make a difference in the field of public health.