Rayhan Asat
LL.M. ‘16, Harvard Law School

Professor Alford beyond Harvard 

On June 30, 2020, after 18 exceptional years of leading the International Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, Professor William P. Alford, Jerome A. and Joan L. Cohen, Professor of Law, stepped down. While Professor Wu is a wonderful successor to Professor Alford, Alford’s stepping down remains a loss for HLS. I’m compelled to pen a tribute to Professor Alford that will testify to the exceptional warmth of the internationally-minded professor and big-hearted mentor whom I came to know in the most unfortunate of circumstances. 

In May 2016, as HLS students excitedly approached graduation, I was flooded with unanswered questions. I was confused as to why my entire family canceled their plans to travel to the U.S. and attend my graduation as the first Uyghur HLS graduate. I had no idea that an extremely long nightmare was about to ensue. I soon came to learn that my brother Ekpar Asat, an Uyghur entrepreneur, multi-faceted media owner, and philanthropist, was forcibly disappeared by the authoritarian Chinese government. Just a few months prior to graduation, I had embraced my brother in Washington, D.C., and New York, when he came to attend a prestigious program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. While the Harvard community celebrated in the joyous company of family, friends, and faculty, I sat in tears without my family. The glow of New England that summer had turned into a thick grey cloud. 

After I learned in the fall of 2016 that the Chinese government was constructing mass concentration camps and forcibly interning Uyghur and other Turkic people, I was frightened about my brother’s safety. Regardless of being fully aware that my own well-being directly impacts my brother’s freedom, I struggled to take care of myself and was struck often by guilt. Amidst this deeply trying time, it was Professor Alford who repeatedly told me that first and foremost, I need to take care of myself —not just for my own sake, but for the sake of my brother, my friends, my family, and my HLS community. 

I got to know professor Alford through long walks in Harvard Yard by the Georgetown river discussing my brother’s possible paths to freedom and the struggles of my people. Professor Alford always made himself available for me throughout this arduous journey that I had to navigate. He predicted the monumental challenges I might face if I shared my story publicly. He assured me that he and the Harvard Law School community would stand behind me. 

Over the years, Professor Alford always reminded me how exceptional a lawyer I am despite the immense personal responsibility I carry every day. In early 2020, when I decided to inform the public about my brother’s enforced disappearance, Professor Alford invited me to return to my alma mater to tell my story. His love and support prompted me to share my brother’s story, a story of courage and grace and I went back to Cambridge to pursue truth and justice for my brother. On March 9, before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the Harvard community to desert our beautiful campus, I stood before a room of faculty members, students, and graduate program staff. Then, holding back tears, I told my brother’s story, just as I had during my walks with Professor Alford. 

My brother’s walk to freedom has been far too long. It’s been four years, eight months, and I’m still counting his unknown steps. One day the tragedy will end because the Harvard community will carry my brother through this struggle. We will all embrace my brother in Cambridge. On that day, I will tell him my mentor, a Harvard Law School professor named Professor William Alford cared tremendously for him. He has been a light for my brother. Beyond all of his glorious achievements and contributions to the field of legal studies, I present a Professor who carried the Veritas torch in pursuit of justice for my brother.