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From the Middle East to the Midwest: Visiting UND instructor brings diverse perspective

Muhammad Samin Khan sits in the Chester Fritz Library holding a book of poetry he wrote along with "Sufism and Social Integration," which he contributed a chapter to and a handful of news clips. Khan has been writing for academic and journalistic publications since the 1990s. (FNS Photo)

GRAND FORKS -- Muhammad Samin Khan was attending dinner in Waziristan with Gov. Ali Jan Aurekzai in 2007 when rockets hit the building.

"When the rocket fell, it sort of shook the whole dinner table," he said. "The governor was shaken but he continued to make his speech, and when the second rocket hit ... there was no pretense of people being sober, wearing their ties. Everybody ran to the chopper."

Now, after experiencing eight years of violence and conflict, he has brought his wife and two children to Grand Forks with the hopes of using his experiences to educate the community. He'll be teaching a class this fall at the University of North Dakota and working with the Institute for Philosophy in Public Life.

"I don't consider myself a victim," he said. "I am a father, which makes my position a little difficult. My priority is to protect my children and fight for my country. These are the two duties I will do for the rest of my life."

Khan moved to Grand Forks in early May from Peshawar, Pakistan, a major trade, travel and communications hub known for its influx of Afghan refugees in the 1980s. There, he was a writer, scholar, professor and also worked as the assistant director of education for Pakistani tribal areas from 2003 to 2007.

Since 2007, when conflict in Waziristan -- the tribal region between Pakistan and Afghanistan -- began, Khan has heard the stories of drone-strike victims first hand and has been threatened because of his writings, but when a school near the one his wife Sara worked for as a principal was infamously attacked by a group of extremists, leaving hundreds of school children dead in 2014, he decided to leave.

"I'm not afraid of dying in the war," Khan said. "Anything that happens to my country, it should happen to me as well. I was born in the soil and I'm a son of the soil and I live and die for my country, but I must protect my children."

The journey

In his 20's, Khan only lasted a couple days at an electronics company before quitting to become a journalist.

"Writing was something that thrilled me," he said. "Writing was something that I could connect to."

Writing for the Frontier Post, a large English-language daily newspaper, he covered crime, politics and women's issues with a philosophical bend.

He pulled out some clips, along with a published book of poetry at UND's Chester Fritz Library last week, giving Sara credit for bringing them along to the U.S. He easily worked in references to philosophers Plato and Xenophon during the conversation.

"I can't write without philosophy," he said.

He went on to make TV appearances and eventually became a professor, getting his works published in several academic works.

In 2007, Khan applied to be a part of UND's Institute for Philosophy in Public Life, and as the group's director Jack Weinstein kept in touch over the years through Facebook, he thought now would be the perfect time to offer Khan the visiting fellow position.

"It became really clear he would be a really interesting voice for the institute, and he and his family could use a year away from the chaos in Pakistan right now," Weinstein said.

Back in Pakistan, Khan, along with many other writers, were targeted by extremists he calls "Kharaji Taliban," a term meaning "outsiders," which represent the Tehric Taliban Pakistan.

Khan said at one point he went so far as to buy a bulletproof vest.

"Anything that is not written for them is blasphemous," he said. "If it's against the religion in their opinion, it's against Islam."

In the three-credit course he'll be teaching this fall, "The Islamic World: Conflict and Engagement with the USA," Khan said he hopes to show American students what's going on in the Middle East from the perspective of someone who has lived through it. He's also an expert on drone warfare.

"My message will be for them to be thankful to the United States of America where you are free, your schools are not attacked, they have freedom of speech and expression and they have a functional democracy," he said. "Where you can write anything in the newspaper and I can write anything and you will not get a threatening call from the Kharaji Taliban."

Safety first

The move has been a bit of a financial adjustment for the family.

Coming from a larger house with a bathroom attached to each room and a salary currently equal to almost $3,000 U.S. dollars each month, the family is now struggling to pay rent on their $1,000 per month apartment with Khan's smaller visiting fellow salary.

But he and Sara said they've encountered extremely friendly and helpful people in the community and are happy.

"When you compare, safety and security come first, so we feel comfortable here," she said.

None of the family had been to the U.S. before May, but Khan had traveled to China and Europe while teaching and studying so he said he hasn't experienced culture shock.

With the help of Weinstein, Khan's children are already enrolled in school. Maha, his 12-year-old daughter, attends Valley Middle School and is captain of the softball team. Hamza, his 8-year-old son, goes to Lake Agassiz Elementary School.

Khan said even though they know Grand Forks is safer than where they were in Pakistan, Hamza is still coping with the knowledge that some children he knew were slaughtered during the 2014 school massacre that spurred Khan to leave.

"It's a trauma the children are still living with," he said.

What lies ahead

Khan is in Grand Forks on a one-year visa, and because Sara can't work with her visa, he is looking for another job to support his family.

He said he would ideally like to stay here for about three years so his children can get a good, safe education, though it depends on whether his visa is renewed.

Weinstein said Khan's involvement with the IPPL will include a blog, videos and discussion boards accessible through a web portal at philosophyinpubliclife.org.

Weinstein said a philosophical angle on Middle Eastern topics will make them more accessible to people in the area.

"We don't know what it's like in Grand Forks to be victims of suicide bombers, but we do know what's it like, sadly, to have people in the community shot for no reason, randomly, so we can talk about the ethics of violence," he said. "We can talk about the relationships between strangers and we can talk about fear and the role of fear."

Khan could also potentially get involved with Weinstein's philosophy radio show, "Why?"

Khan said ideally he would like to get involved with local media and continue writing. He's also working with the Pakistani government to address violence back home and could go back in the future.

"I'm a responsible government servant so I can sort this out in my own way, but of course there are threats," he said. "I'm not worried for myself. I'm 41 years old, I'm an old guy. I'm just worried for my kids."

 
Anna Burleson

Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact her with story ideas or tips by phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. Examples of her work can be accessed here.

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