The news of Russia invading Ukraine has shaken Harvard’s campus: immediately following the news break, students outpoured support on social media and protest plans quickly formed. Soon after, University President Lawrence S. Bacow publicly declared the University’s support for the Ukrainian government and announced that the Ukrainian flag would be flown above the John Harvard statue. However, as a Middle Eastern student, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Harvard's different reactions for wars initiated by the American government in the Middle East and those in white European countries.
Moments after I gazed at the news of Ukraine on the TV screen, I couldn't help but remember similar footage that came out of my own country of Afghanistan earlier last year. Afghanistan was entrenched in over 20 years of conflict with the American government, resulting in the collapse of the Afghan institution, the death of over 241,000 people, and the displacement of nearly six million Afghans. The invasion came to an end last year when President Joe Biden withdrew all troops from the country, leaving the Taliban to overtake control and sparking a massive humanitarian crisis that is expected to kill millions in the coming months. In response to the Taliban’s takeover, the Biden administration froze the assets of Afghan citizens and sanctioned the country, causing an economic collapse and the death of even more Afghans. Though, unlike Ukraine, the Afghan people and students did not receive any statements of support from Harvard’s president, and no flag was waved on campus. Instead, Harvard ignored the conflict and signaled that the institution will only take a stand when it concerns white victims.
Similarly, Harvard's student body, which has historically been disproportionately wealthy and white, also ignored the conflict. While there were many petitions signed by students and different on-campus organizations imploring the University to support Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian students, Middle Eastern students suffering from similar tragedies were once again left out of any support beyond their own cultural organizations. I believe the racist rhetoric perpetuated by the American media — which alludes inhumanity to one group and humanity to the other — is to blame for much of the dialogue around campus. Though, still, I couldn’t help but wonder why the conflicts in nonwhite countries seem too foreign and far removed to my classmates, yet the Ukrainian war is rightfully deserving of support. The answer was loud and clear: one is white, and the other is not. Such clear bias and racism among the student body here at Harvard not only shows the daily struggles Harvard’s students of color face, but also reflects the institution’s historically racist campus.
The support the Ukrainian people received is not only important but required. However, Middle Eastern students like myself, who have family back home and are victims of war, have every right to call out the institution they attend and their fellow peers on their racist bias. Many of us went through similar tragedies in life and had to flee our countries, yet Middle Eastern students did not receive nearly as much public support as white refugees from Harvard and its community.
If Harvard’s goal is truly teaching future world leaders in a diverse living environment it needs to ensure that it supports all of its students equally regardless of their skin color or religion. For years, Harvard has fostered a community that not only supports subtle and outright racism but also helps it thrive. Harvard and its student body need to acknowledge their racist biases and Harvard needs to invest in communities that its actions have long oppressed. While the support for the crisis in Ukraine should be applauded, the crisis around the world in non-white countries should not be ignored either.
Muqtader Omari ’25 is a first-year College student in Wigglesworth Hall.