Afghan Scholar Escaped Taliban Rule, Finds New Home at Brooklyn Law
By Teresa Novellino
Photo by Conor Sullivan
Caption: Brooklyn Law’s new Director of International Program Diane Penneys Edelman ’83, left, with Afghan scholar Nargis Baran.
Just two years ago, Nargis Baran was employed as a Legal Specialist for the largest international bank in Afghanistan, working and advocating for the rule of law and democracy, and spending time with friends and family. All of that changed on Aug. 15, 2021, the day the Taliban took over Kabul, toppling the government.
“The day started as a normal one, but it totally changed to the worst day of my life,” Baran said in an interview at Brooklyn Law School’s Feil Hall, where she now lives with her family. “Before that, I was optimistic that Kabul, the capital, would never fall to the Taliban -- that it was not possible.”
The takeover by the Taliban, known for banning women from the workplace, would have rendered meaningless the legal education and career Baran had worked so hard for. But fortunately, her legal career is back on track. After escaping Afghanistan and living in a refugee camp in Abu Dhabi for 18 months, Baran and her family made it to the United States in April, aided by a national network of diplomats, professors, and the deans of three local law schools. Cardozo School of Law offered her a fellowship as a research scholar, Brooklyn Law held open an apartment for Baran and her family, and Fordham contributed funding and support for the rescue plan.
Coincidentally, Brooklyn Law’s new Director of International Program Diane Penneys Edelman ’83 recently got involved with the American Bar Association Afghan Legal Professionals Scholarship & Mentoring Pilot Program, which helps Afghan lawyers, especially female lawyers, get to the United States. She plans to have Baran meet her LL.M. students when they arrive at Brooklyn Law School later this month.
“I hope that Nargis will be able to tell her story, so the students can see the importance of international law, which is what brought Nargis and her family here,” Edelman said.
Baran, who hopes to teach commercial law, has to pass the bar in order to practice law in the United States, but she is in a good location: New York is one of the few jurisdictions that permit someone who has an LL.M. to become admitted to the Bar to practice law, Edelman said.
Not Allowed to Work
Baran’s journey was difficult and at times terrifying. Weeks before the U.S. troops’ withdrawal date of Aug. 31, 2021, the Taliban started assuming power.
“At 6 p.m. each day, there was news that another province collapsed, and the Taliban had taken it over. This happened in a very short period of time,” Baran said. “Each day, two or three provinces were taken.”
Then, on Aug. 15, the Taliban took over Kabul. Baran had been working from home that morning until her mother rushed in and summoned her to the balcony, where they could view people frantically running through the streets.
“The electricity was out, so I went onto my mobile to see what was happening and checked Facebook. Every page was saying the Taliban took over Kabul,” she said. “I thought, maybe this page is fake and they're just spreading this wrong news. Let's go to another page. But each page said Kabul is now under the control of the Taliban.”
For five or six hours, she and her mom sat in stunned silence, unable to believe that the government had been overthrown. At the end of the day, her male boss called to say that the collapsed government had upended the bank’s operations, and she could not go back to work. “There is no office,” he told Baran.
“After investing all of our lives and time on education and just trying to do something for this country, there was no difference between us [as women] and someone who was illiterate and sitting at home,” Baran said. “We were not allowed to work.”
More immediately, though, was the issue of survival. If there were a heat map of Taliban danger levels, Baran was in the red zone, with each of her life achievements more incendiary than the last. She was a single female, living independently with only another female, her mom, in an apartment. She was a member of the Afghanistan bar, working full-time at an international bank. She was U.S.-educated, having received an LL.M. degree from Ohio Northern University in Democratic Governance and the Rule of Law in 2018. Perhaps most dangerous of all, Baran was a member of the Afghan-U.S. Law Alumni Association, a group of 120 U.S.-educated legal professionals in high-ranking positions, assisting the U.S. State Department by training judges and prosecutors in modern law, and advocating for democracy, an agenda that the Taliban sharply opposed.
Fearful of going out of the house without a male accompanying them, Baran and her mom paid neighbors to buy groceries for them. They stayed away from the windows and did not turn on the TV, afraid that they would be heard. A former Ohio Northern University law professor, messaged Baran to tell her not to panic, and to hide all documentation indicating that she had been in the United States, and about her education.
In the meantime, a U.S. colleague working for a Department of State funded project arranged for 10 scholars and their families, including Baran and hers, to leave Afghanistan ahead of Aug. 31. One early morning, Baran received a call to show up in a few hours with her mother at a location where she would be picked up and taken to Kabul International Airport. But the Taliban were blocking traffic, and after walking four hours, the violence that Baran and her mother witnessed made it seem too dangerous to continue.
“When we gathered, we saw that everyone was trying to escape the Taliban government and leave Afghanistan; whether they are documented, undocumented, it didn’t matter,” she said. “At the airport, everyone was just trying to get onto the plane and the Taliban were shooting in every direction.”
She and her mother went back to their apartment. On Sept. 5, she married her husband, but the family continued to live mostly in hiding. On Oct. 15, Professor Hall sent Baran a message that she and her family should go to another Afghanistan province, Mazar-i-Sharif, to get a flight out of the country. They were evacuated on Oct. 18 to Abu Dhabi, where they lived for a year and a half in a refugee camp, all three in just one room.
“There was no education, there was no work, and we could not leave the camp,” Baran said. After 18 months, her P1 case was approved and her visa came through at last, and Professor Hall told her that a New York law school would send her an offer to join as a scholar, and Cardozo informed her of the fellowship.
“I really appreciate how amazing and wonderful people have been. The schools waited so long for me, and Brooklyn and Cardozo arranged everything for me,” Baran said. “For instance, with Brooklyn Law School, I know how expensive it is to rent a place, but they kept this apartment open for me for more than one year. I can't say in words how grateful I am.”