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UN Center for Afghan Studies Marks 50th Anniversary Despite Taliban Control

OMAHA, Nebraska (Nebraska) — As the US withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban regained control, the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s work to teach Afghans seemed lost, their faculty forced to flee to neighboring countries if they could.

“We had a physical presence in Kabul, which we completely lost after December 2020,” said Sher Yan Ahmadzai, director of the UN Center for Afghan Studies. “Two of my colleagues were taken into custody by the Taliban. They were detained by the Taliban and one of them was tortured.”

Over the years, the center has trained teachers and trained the people of Afghanistan, except when the Taliban were in control.

“Over the past 20 years, we have trained nearly 8,000 teachers in Afghanistan through our programs,” Ahmadzai said. “The sudden loss of the ability to teach is heartbreaking.”

The UN’s commitment to Afghan studies began in 1972, and shortly thereafter it began amassing the largest university collection of historical Afghan documents in the Western world—books, maps, records—more than 20,000 items.

Amy Schindler curates Arthur Paul’s Afghan collection showing a travel brochure from the 80s. She laments this shortly before 9/11, when the Taliban destroyed countless archives and antiquities, including the world’s tallest Buddha statue.

“No one else will ever be able to climb to this, and you will know yourself on the scale of feeling this pure place in the world, this human effort to create these buddhas carved into the mountainside,” said Schindler, director. archives and special collections with UN libraries. “No one else will have that experience.”

Work continues in Omaha, where the UN has helped establish a consortium to assist refugees resettling in Omaha and Lincoln, continues academic courses, conducts seminars on Afghanistan for federal agencies, and welcomes students from all over the world.

“This commitment is not fading,” Ahmadzai said. “The 50 years that we have spent here, this is the office where I sit, this is the main office, the exact place where the center was. It shows our commitment as a public university representing the people of Nebraska, our commitment as Nebraska to the people of Afghanistan, democracy, human rights, education.”

What education will look like in the future under Taliban rule is, of course, unknown. But, based on the past fifty years, it seems that the UN and the Center for Afghan Studies are ready to be at the center of it all.

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