U of T visiting scholar pairs Afghanistan advocacy with a passion for physics

April 2, 2024 by Tabassum Siddiqui - U of T News

Growing up in Afghanistan, Tahir Shaaran was endlessly curious about the world around him — including the seemingly endless conflicts that engulfed his country.

“I was always thinking about the connection between me and my surroundings and how the universe is functioning — ‘What is the meaning of being here?’ — and those kinds of complicated philosophical questions,” he says.

Shaaran found at least some of the answers he was seeking in physics — and quantum physics in particular. He would go on to spend nearly two decades studying and working around the world before returning to Afghanistan to work as director-general of its nuclear energy agency — an effort, he says, to use his knowledge to help his country.

Now a visiting scholar in the University of Toronto’s Department of Physics in the Faculty of Arts & Science, Shaaran is teaching the next generation of scientists and says he’s once again reminded of education’s power to drive change and social progress.

“So many people who had the right education and skills to help Afghanistan in terms of development ended up having to leave,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s about humanity — the crisis in Afghanistan is not just local to that country. Even though it feels like something may not directly affect us, the consequences of such situations are much bigger than for just one place or group of people.

“A lot of the time, we’re looking for quick fixes, but we have to advocate for long-term, sustainable solutions — and we can only do that through education.”

Born during the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Shaaran left his native Bamyan province with his family when he was still a young child due to civil unrest in the region. He was raised in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan and later fled to Europe in 1999 following persecution and attacks on the minority Hazara community to which his family belonged.

Settling in the United Kingdom, Shaaran completed several degrees in physics at University College London. Throughout his studies, he collaborated with international institutions, including the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the U.K. and the neutron-scattering facility at Institut Laue-Langevin in France.

He went on to work abroad on atomic and nuclear physics, including at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Germany, the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) and the Institute of Photonic Science in Spain.

Yet, Afghanistan was never far from his mind — and he began thinking about how his studies could help improve the economic and social situation back home.

“I had met the vice-president of Afghanistan in Germany and told him about my plan: the dream of building a national research centre for science and technology back in Afghanistan,” Shaaran says.

“I wanted to have a bigger impact, so I thought the research centre was something that could help more people.”

He was invited to Kabul to meet then-president Ashraf Ghani. While there was no money to fund his research centre dream, Shaaran was tapped to become director-general of Afghanistan’s Nuclear Energy Agency in 2018 — a job he hoped to slowly expand to include a research element. At first, he says was encouraged by the government’s stated openness to scientific progress and development, but soon found himself disillusioned as the political and security situation in the country deteriorated.

“I didn’t receive the support the president had promised,” Shaaran recalls. “Some of it was understandable, as there was a war and a complicated political situation, but I had a feeling the system was going to collapse so I resigned in early 2021.”

Looking back, he says his exit came just in time — the Taliban captured Kabul later that year and the United States withdrew its military. The situation remains volatile, with a crackdown on women’s rights, threats of terrorism, extreme poverty and other challenges.

“In a way, we are all responsible for what has happened to Afghanistan — from human rights activists to the police to policymakers — [because] we didn’t think about how we could build the country independently without relying on anyone from the outside,” says Shaaran, who has been a longtime advocate for human rights and the rights of Afghanistan’s minority Hazara population.

Shaaran says teaching at U of T helps keep him inspired and optimistic about the future — thanks in no small part to a steady stream of engaged physics students. He also leads an advanced physics lab this semester that offers 40 different experiments for five different courses.

“His expertise allows him to supervise a range of projects, covering topics from optics to particle physics, and help students progress through their experiments. In addition to that, he is a great colleague — willing to learn from more experienced members from the team, while sharing his expertise with teaching assistants and junior colleagues,” says Shaaran’s colleague Ania Harlick, an assistant professor, teaching stream.

“Tahir brings considerable expertise in theoretical and nuclear physics from his work in academia and at Afghanistan’s nuclear agency,” adds Professor Kimberly Strong, chair of the department of physics.

“He has been actively engaged in the life of the department this year, and it has been such a great pleasure hosting him here.”

As for his ongoing advocacy efforts, Shaaran continues to speak with politicians and organize rallies and workshops to ensure Afghanistan and its people remain in the public consciousness.

“Despite all the difficulties, I’m an optimist because when I call someone in Afghanistan — even in a remote area and even though young women and girls are not allowed to go to school — they still have drive and hope,” he says. “Many people send me emails or texts saying they are looking for online education as they want to learn.

“Those small things give me a lot of hope.”