Around 44,000 students are finding their way to classes as the fall term gets underway at UCLA, some for the first time. Among them is Abraham Amiri, a genial graduate student who is waiting for his fellow Bruins outside the Court of Sciences with a telescope.
Chatty by nature, he solicits nothing. There’s no sign that reads, “I’m an astronomer from Afghanistan who taught young women about astronomy and was threatened by the Taliban. Ask me anything.” But there may as well be.
Amiri puts a solar filter on his telescope to let it track the sun. “If anybody gets curious,” he said, “I let them have a look. It just gives me a lot energy to see the reaction on the faces of people. Wherever I find myself, I talk about stars.”
Amiri began life in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1989. He remembers the Hale-Bopp comet passing over when he was 7. It helped ignite a big bang of passion for astronomy that’s still expanding.
The skies over Kabul, Afghanistan, are mostly free of light pollution. When Amiri moved there with his family in 2003, shortly after the Taliban government was ousted, his life as a dedicated amateur astronomer began. Resources were few. He built his first telescope as a teenager, with a magnifying glass and a stovepipe.
“I looked at the craters on the moon, Jupiter’s and Saturn’s rings, the cluster of Pleiades. I can remember it all so vividly,” he said.
Astronomy wasn’t offered at the University of Kabul, so Amiri pursued a degree in physics. After graduation in 2012, he led the Afghan Astronomy Association. The group helped to found astronomy clubs all over Afghanistan and created a textbook.
For six years, Amiri traveled Afghanistan teaching astronomy. Photos show him surrounded by young women wearing traditional head coverings.
“There are no specific verses in Koran or the hadiths that would directly oppose science,” Amiri said. “But in the Taliban narrative, astronomy is a Western idea. They generally don’t like science or technology — except weapons. But anything that would make you think about creation or think critically scares them.”
The Taliban’s shadow never left Afghanistan, even during the U.S. occupation. When American forces left in 2021 and the Taliban took over, Amiri was forced out with them.
“Someone ran in and said the Taliban was in the street with their guns,” Amiri recalled. “I sent everybody home, and we destroyed any documents that showed any connection with the U.S. State Department because we were getting funding from them. I walked 10 miles in bad shoes. Those blisters lasted a month. I was locked in my home for 10 days with my parents until our friends from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences helped me and my family get to the airport.”
Along with his parents and younger sister, Amiri fled. He took a laptop and a change of clothing, leaving behind hundreds of female students whose education was halted.
“So many of us young Afghans sacrificed so much,” he said. “We did our best to bring a change, but the politicians are more powerful. The changes we made were washed away like sandcastles.”
During a five-month stay for resettlement processing at Fort Picket, Virginia, he borrowed telescopes and taught astronomy to the children of Afghan refugees.
After resettling on the West Coast, Amiri’s life took a major turn. With sponsorship from a UCLA faculty member, Amiri was named a Kavli Scholar in the summer of 2023. The program helps scholars whose work and scientific research is disrupted by extreme circumstances, including strife, natural disasters and climate change. Support from the Kavli Foundation allowed Amiri to enroll at UCLA, where he’s pursuing a master’s degree in planetary sciences.
Now, every Wednesday, Amiri hauls a telescope, tripod and various accoutrements from an office on the third floor of the Geology Building to the Court of Sciences. He brings a binoviewer — an apparatus that lets stargazers use both eyes and get a better sense of depth.
It takes a few trips, but he’s got the setup and alignment down to a science. When he’s done, an impromptu observatory is ready to open the heavens to passersby.
“It’s really cool to have somebody here who can explain all this,” said Carlos Rodriguez, a transfer student from Porterville Community College. “We looked at those sun spots through the telescope and talked about solar storms. He’s got the knowledge!”
Whenever he has a break, Amiri scrolls Facebook and chat platforms. It’s there that he connects with hundreds of his former female students still in Afghanistan, hoping access to the internet there won’t be cut.
“Now those girls are sitting and hiding in their home, and they can’t walk outside without a male, but as long as they’re allowed to use Facebook and social media, I can keep teaching,” Amiri said.
“People should know the Earth isn’t everything. There’s much more.”