Flight to Freedom
The young family walks hand in hand along the great lawn surrounding the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning on a sunny January afternoon. This soaring monument to knowledge at the heart of this urban campus is a favorite spot for Mohammad Hassany M.S. ’20, his wife, their young son and their baby girl. It’s a reminder of a new life, safety, freedom — as they deeply miss the home they left behind.
It’s been seven months since the family fled the rise of the Taliban in their home country of Afghanistan to begin a new life in the U.S., with Hassany securing a fellowship as a Ph.D. student in information science at Pitt.
As he recalls their journey, Hassany is filled with gratitude to many people who have lent support and comfort and enabled him and his family to leave Afghanistan to find work and a safe place to raise his children.
Afghanistan — and their entire family back home — are constantly in their thoughts. Despite everything, Hassany hopes to return someday.
“I want to make a difference when I go back,” Hassany says. “This was a chance given to us, with the help of so many.”
Hassany and his family took some time this past January to recall their lives in Afghanistan, their heart-breaking decision to leave, their new lives in Pittsburgh and their hopes for the future.
They warmly greet visitors to their tidy apartment in Pittsburgh, where their son’s drawings — a pumpkin, a cheetah, a red valentine for Mom — fill a wall. The lively seven-year-old brings a visitor his football to kick and his Play-Doh animals to admire. His baby sister tags along, quickly warming to visitors all on her own, with her winning smile. Hassany’s wife graciously prepares a dinner of Afghan dishes — beautifully presented, delicious.
The family arrived in Pittsburgh in May 2022, when Hassany was accepted into the H.J. Heinz Fellowship program, designed for scholars from developing countries.
Hassany’s humility and soft-spoken nature are striking and belie truly stellar academic achievements and a steely determination. He is a former Fulbright Scholar — his route to Stevens where he earned his master’s degree in software engineering in 2020 — and a software entrepreneur driven to give back to his people.
The son of a bus driver, his parents strongly encouraged him to pursue the educational opportunities they never had. After undergraduate studies in Afghanistan, he was later accepted into the Fulbright program and was away from his wife and son for two years as he studied at Stevens.
He made the decision to return to his home country in 2020 because, earlier in his life, he had lived as a refugee in another country and didn’t want this for his children. Strong family ties — three generations of his family share a home — also called him back.
The fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021, and the Taliban’s swift takeover of the country shocked them all. It soon became clear that Hassany would have to leave the country.
He and his family – with his wife ready to give birth to their daughter at the time – attempted twice to leave, facing months-long waits as they tried to secure visas for the entire family while staying safe.
Stevens professor Raz Saremi M.Eng. ’13 Ph.D. ’18, who was one of his former instructors, and Stevens emeritus professor Ed Friedman — who had worked and lived with his family in Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s — were in contact with him all along, lending much support. His Stevens friends also worked their contacts to help Hassany make a connection at Pitt, where professors there helped him secure a position, temporary housing and other assistance.
After tense months of waiting in Kabul and Pakistan, the Hassanys secured visas for their entire family. “Everyone I met or didn’t meet who had to do with our journey here was always supportive, always taking care of us,” Hassany says. “At Pitt, at Stevens — even those whose names we don’t know.”
Their adjustment to life in the U.S. has been punctuated by the kind support of colleagues and strangers, and an aching for family and community.
“We miss our family in Afghanistan,” his wife says. “We miss the life, and sometimes I cry.”
The internet is their lifeline to their family back home; they speak every day, early each morning and then late at night.
It can be weeks, even months, between visits with friends here. But the family received a piece of joyful news recently — good friends from Afghanistan had just moved to Pittsburgh, too.
They do treasure many things about their new life.
When they arrived near Pittsburgh, “it was summer, we were only seeing trees,” Hassany says. “We were shocked — were we going to live in a forest?
“But then we saw the city; it’s a very green city. Not as big as Manhattan but big enough and small enough to be a good city to live in.”
His wife says that she loves the greenness of this city and its friendly people. This is her first time outside of her country, and she is learning English.
As he works on his Ph.D., Hassany also devotes several hours a week to a mission close to his heart. He hopes to develop an online platform that will allow anyone in Afghanistan with an internet connection to have access to high-quality educational materials, to deliver education to anyone who wants it.
He sees an urgent need. The war and students’ inability to attend school safely — and the banning of girls from attending school altogether — is creating a huge educational gap, with a generation losing out, Hassany says.
“Online technology can play a role here,” he says. “(Also) If we had one TV channel, we could make sure we are delivering educational content to most of Afghanistan. I know that many people have a TV. Or the internet. There are a lot of things that can be done.”
But most of his and his wife’s goals are for their children. They see their son loving school and making friends, and both of their children safe and happy.
“Seeing my children enjoying their life, having the opportunity to have a bright future is very motivating for us. Along with that, we are very hopeful to be united with our family again,” Hassany says.
“It is such hopes that keep us pushing forward — eventually, they will be realized.”