Since the fall of Kabul in August of 2021, faculty and candidates in the Graduate School of Arts & Science’s Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis (the Postdoc Program) have been providing pro bono mental health services to students, staff and administrators of the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF).
In June of 2021, AUAF contacted the Postdoc Program for assistance in creating mental health services for their students, who were coping with stress and anxiety as the country’s political situation deteriorated. NYU’s Postdoc Program, which provides intensive clinical psychoanalytic training for doctoral-level mental health practitioners, has a global reputation for expertise in trauma care and dedication to humanitarian work. Throughout the summer of 2021, educators and administrators developed a plan to service mental health needs at AUAF. An initial series of focus group sessions were agreed upon, and scheduled to begin on August 15th.
The sessions never took place. On August 15th, the Taliban captured the city of Kabul amid an ongoing withdrawal of the United States military, as proscribed under the February 2020 peace agreement between the US and the Taliban.
Within days, the Postdoc Program began to receive emergency communications from AUAF students, faculty and administrators who were trapped in Kabul as the campus closed, the central government collapsed, and the Taliban takeover drove Afghans into hiding or flight.
Soon, a dozen volunteers, including faculty of the Postdoc Program and postdoctoral students, began providing one-on-one therapy to students and colleagues over the phone and zoom. The sessions, mostly weekly, have continued even as clients have moved from location to location in search of safety and stability.
“This is what we are trained to do. We help people who are suffering,” said Spyros D. Orfanos, Director of the Postdoc Program. “With trauma, people’s thinking and feelings can be compromised, just when they need to be at full power to achieve their main goal, which in this case is survival. Our task here has been to support people in their efforts to survive. Women especially are experiencing trauma on another level.” In addition to curtailing travel, employment and public life for Afghan women, the Taliban have placed a de facto ban on secondary and higher education for girls and women.
One volunteer is Lisa Lyons, an alumnus of the Postdoc Program who now serves on the faculty. She has been providing pro bono humanitarian work through the Postdoc Program’s various initiatives and partnerships for five years, including trauma evaluations for immigrants’ rights cases in conjunction with NYU Law Physicians for Human Rights. She spoke of her experience with a client from AUAF. “I’ve been struck by how dedicated to her education she is. Through upheaval, obstacles, extreme danger and trauma, her dreams of finishing her education and making a career of helping her country have persisted. This work is very much in line with the Postdoc Program’s commitment to social justice, and for me, has brought home the daily experience of oppression in a powerful way.”
Another volunteer, Esen Karan, has been a candidate in the Postdoc Program for two years. “My goal has been to give my client a space of time that’s free from external pressures. When danger is real and present, impulsive decision-making can be a natural response, but in sessions I try to help her work through fear, hopelessness, and other difficult emotions when considering important decisions. I believe the connection and continuity have helped her. Throughout the many changes in her life, she has not missed a session.”
The Postdoc Program’s emphasis on human rights, diversity, social justice and access to care for low-income and underserved people is especially appealing to Karan, who emigrated to the US from Turkey. “The opportunity to volunteer, make change, and touch another human’s life has been transformative. I understand, however, that this story may not end as I wish it to.”
Many AUAF students are now studying at universities outside the country. Inside Higher Ed reports that while 450 AUAF students, alumni and staff were successfully evacuated from Afghanistan, about 350 students remain unable to leave. A relocation of the campus and students to Doha, agreed upon in December 2021, has yet to materialize. According to the AUAF website, “the University is working to bring all students to safety while considering the dangers currently being faced by students in Afghanistan.”
Below is an excerpt from a piece written by one of the AUAF students receiving therapy from a Postdoc Program faculty member. She asked that it be shared.
Letter to Humanity
Our story is not just about the collapse of a government, flags, officials, and buildings. It is about a nation and its young and bright generation who lost hope. It is not about conquering territories, mountains, and public buildings. It is about humans who breathe in this land and want to live. Behind those figures, numbers, photos, and videos you watch are Afghan lives, dreams, and sweat. In the 21st century, we get lashed and killed for seeking our natural and God-given rights. Words and pictures are not enough to show our pain and anguish. Our professor used to say in university, that we are the first generation of Afghans who can think and talk freely, we are the elites of Afghanistan. But now, we wonder, will we ever be able to think freely? Things we worked for with our soul and body vanished. It hurts to be scared of your city, home, and even be scared of who you are. It is like we want to leave but our feet could not go along, we do not want to go but there was no place to live. Suddenly, your country becomes an unknown place, your home becomes strange, your dreams shatter. We thought we would never fall but we fell, we thought it would never occur but it did occur.
For others, it is just news, for us, it is our country. For others it is numbers; for us, it is our lives. For the world it is an attack; for us, it is our normal daily life. Living with fear, trauma, threat, and violence is not living; it is barely surviving. Yes, Afghans who survive are considered alive; but they do not live. In my country living is surviving.
I conclude my letter with a 13th century Persian poem by Saadi Shirazi. “If you have no sympathy for human pain, the name of human you cannot retain.” We are in pain. Be sure you act to help us.