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Grad students organize for safe return of kidnapped colleague, Elizabeth Tsurkov

A white building with many columns with a blue sky and a tree with no leaves.
Robertson Hall.
Calvin Grover / The Daily Princetonian

On Tuesday, March 5, a graduate student sent an email in the Free Food listserv with the subject: “not food; but please help save our colleague’s life!” The message encouraged students to send letters to Congress to bring attention to the situation of Princeton Ph.D. candidate Elizabeth Tsurkov, who was kidnapped in Iraq by Shiite militia Kataib Hezbollah in March 2023. The email is part of a larger effort by concerned graduate students who are advocating for Tsurkov’s release.

“Our main goal is just making sure that she’s not forgotten,” Narrelle Gilchrist, a third-year graduate student in the Politics department who has been part of the organizing effort, shared with The Daily Princetonian.


The email shared that Tsurkov’s family has asked that the Princeton community participate in the effort to free Elizabeth by sending letters to congress. 

“Her case has not gotten enough attention until now, and her life is in danger,” the email read. 

The email directed students to a website made by Tsurkov’s family, which contains a template letter and the contacts of “relevant senators.” 

According to Gilchrist, she is one of a group of “semi organized … mostly concerned” grad students who are looking for ways to help.

“We all do field research ourselves, so it really could happen to any of us” she shared.  “We want to make sure that we’re not leaving anything on the table that could possibly be done to try to get her home.”

Recently, Tsurkov’s case has successfully caught the attention of Congress. Per the Tsurkov family’s website, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) wrote to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in September to “urge the Administration to use our close and abiding relationship with Iraq to raise Elizabeth’s abduction and call for her release at every opportunity and level.” 


In November, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce referenced Tsurkov in its announcement launching an investigation into University research fellow Seyed Hossein Mousavian, amid allegations that Mousavian was using his position to advance the interests of Iran. 

In a letter sent to President Eisgruber regarding the investigation, the committee wrote: “Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Princeton doctoral student, is currently being held hostage in Iraq by Iran-backed militias. Has Princeton asked Mousavian to assist in Tsurkov’s release? Has Mousavian offered to use his contacts to try to free Tsurkov?”

Gilchrist emphasized that graduate student organizers are working to “encourage the University to be fully engaging with” U.S. government officials in Congress and the Department of State “to make sure this remains a priority issue.”

“The University is focused on Elizabeth’s safety and well-being,” University Spokesperson Jennifer Morrill wrote to the ‘Prince.’ “We have offered and provided support to Elizabeth’s family, including by making available reputable outside experts the University has retained and by advocating with U.S. government officials to use their influence to help bring Elizabeth home safely.”

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In an interview with ABC News that was linked in the March 5 email, Elizabeth Tsurkov’s sister, Emma Tsurkov, said, “The only thing standing between her and freedom is a stern enough phone call from Washington, D.C. to Baghdad telling the Iraqi government, ‘you need to get her out.’”

As noted in the ABC News report, United States-Iraq tensions have heightened in recent months as some groups within the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) — a coalition which the Iraqi government has labeled an “independent military formation” within its armed forces — have launched attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria, in relation to the war in Gaza. The Iraqi faction of Kataib Hezbollah is part of the PMF.

News of Elizabeth Tsurkov’s kidnapping became public in July when Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that she was being held by Kataib Hezbollah. Tsurkov, who specializes in the Middle East, including Iraq, Syria, and Israel-Palestine, was conducting research which the University confirmed in October was “related to her approved Ph.D. dissertation topic.” 

A video circulated online and broadcast on Iraqi television networks in November appeared to show Tsurkov for the first time since she was abducted. In the video, Tsurkov spoke Hebrew — likely under duress — for more than four minutes, asking her family and friends to work towards her release. She said that Kataib Hezbollah told her no efforts had been made for her release. 

Tsurkov’s family is now asking the Princeton community to be part of the effort to free Elizabeth. The “How can you help?” tab on their website asks visitors to write letters to “Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Chairman Senator Cardin, Ranking Member Senator Risch, and majority members Senator Booker and Senator Menendez” to “let them know that you want the United States government to call for Elizabeth’s release and work with the Iraqi government to ensure her freedom.”

“It is something simple and [takes] only a few minutes,” Gilchrist said of the call to action, “it’s helpful for Congress to be able to know that this is something that they should prioritize.”

Bridget O’Neill is a head News editor for the ‘Prince.’

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