UNO’s Center for Afghan Studies commemorates 50 years, despite Taliban control

The center got its start in 1972 and has educated over 8,000 Afghani teachers.
UNO's Center for Afghan Studies is celebrating 50 years of educating and preserving Afghan history and culture.
Published: Feb. 20, 2023 at 10:19 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - When the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban regained control, the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s work educating Afghan people seemed lost, their educators forced to flee to neighboring nations -- if they could.

“We had a physical presence in Kabul that we lost completely after December of 2020,” said Sher Jan Ahmadzai, the director of UNO’s Center for Afghanistan 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 educated the people of Afghanistan -- except when the Taliban has been in control.

“In the last 20 years, we’ve trained almost 8,000 teachers in Afghanistan through our programs,” Ahmadzai said. “The sudden loss of that ability to teach is heartbreaking.”

UNO’s commitment to Afghan studies began in 1972, and soon after, it began amassing the largest university collection of historic Afghan documents -- books, maps, recordings -- in the Western world -- over 20,000 items.

Amy Schindler oversees the Arthur Paul Afghanistan Collection, showing a travel brochure from the 80s. On it, she laments, just before 9/11 -- when the Taliban destroyed countless archives and antiquities, including the world’s tallest Buddha statue.

“No one will again ever have the experience of walking up to that, and you know themselves on a scale of feeling that pure place in the world, of this human effort of creating these Buddhas, carved into the mountainside,” said Schindler, director of archives and special collections with UNO’s libraries. “No one else will ever have that experience.”

The work continues in Omaha, where UNO helped set up a consortium to assist refugees relocating to Omaha and Lincoln, continues academic courses, holds Afghan emergence seminars for federal agencies, and hosts students from around the world.

“That commitment is not fading,” Ahmadzai said. “The 50 years that we have spent here right in this office I’m sitting, this is the main office, the exact location where the center was. That shows our commitment as a public university that represents Nebraskans, in our commitment as Nebraskans to the people of Afghanistan, to democracy, to human rights, to education.”

What education will look like in the future under Taliban rule is, of course, unknown. But based on the last half-century, it appears that UNO and the Center for Afghan Studies are poised to be at the heart of it.