Under Threat At Home, Refugee Scholars Find Academic Havens At U.S. Universities

Around the globe, more scholars are now threatened and displaced than since World War II began. In response, U.S. universities have sponsored endangered scholars and recently created a consortium that offers a broader academic community to refugee scholars threatened by war and authoritarian governments.

"There is a moral obligation to do something," said Arien Mack, a psychology professor at New York City's New School for Social Research, who launched Endangered Scholars Worldwide in 2007 to draw attention to the threats facing academics. She now oversees the New University in Exile Consortium, which will bring exiled scholars together over the next two years for seminars, workshops and conferences. The New School has recruited 10 other universities to the consortium, and is urging more to join.

The consortium aims to build intellectual links among the refugee scholars and their host institutions.

"We are trying to nurture intellectual capital, we are saving brains, " Mack said at a Sept. 6 event in New York City to launch the project. "Even when [refugee scholars] are safe, what is painfully absent is that they don't get integrated, they are isolated, they suffer from estrangement."

The New University in Exile Consortium modeled its name on the first university in exile, which was launched at the New School in 1933. Then, the mission was to save Jewish scholars targeted by Nazism and purged from universities as Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany.

Now, the dangers are geographically wider, spanning the Middle East, Turkey, and parts of Africa, Asia and South America. The threats are no less chilling.

Syrian academic Mohammad Alahmad, a specialist in Arabic literature, had to negotiate with Islamist radicals to continue teaching at Al-Furat University's campus in Raqqa. In 2014, the militants declared Raqqa the capital of the Islamic State.

"I lived with them for two years," he said of the ISIS militants. "I decided to stay to help students, to continue teaching as much as we can."

He escaped the city with his family, smuggling them across a dangerous border into Turkey after ISIS shut down his university. He was awarded a fellowship by the International Institute of Education's Scholar Rescue Fund, an organization that helps arrange emergency placement and funds for academic figures at risk. He was matched with Georgetown University where he is now a lecturer at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.

The New School's initiative to launch a consortium comes at a time of increasing attacks on scholars, especially in the Middle East. After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, al-Qaida militants began targeting academics and intellectuals with death threats and assassinations, forcing many into exile. In Syria, the rise of ISIS left parts of the university system in ruins, with campuses converted into militia bases or refugee centers. And in Turkey, following a failed coup attempt in 2016, authorities have shuttered universities, jailed hundreds of scholars and purged thousands of professors from public and private colleges.

The Scholar Rescue Fund, established in 2002, has helped more than 700 scholars find academic placements in 43 countries. About 40 percent have been placed in American educational institutions.

Indian activist and academic Binalakshmi Nepram says her work advocating for gender rights and a women-led disarmament movement in her home state of Manipur, in northeast India, led to threats and intimidation.

In an interview at the New School event, she described her traumatic departure from home and arrival in the U.S. in 2017. "I just came with a red suitcase in the middle of the night," she said.

Now she is a visiting scholar in residence at Connecticut College.

"We have all left everything behind," she said of the dozen refugee scholars gathered in New York for the inauguration of the consortium. "We are not seeking sympathy but understanding. We speak the truth through our work."

In 2016, Turkey's chief prosecutor opened an investigation of more than 1,000 Turkish academics who had signed a petition calling on the government to resume peace talks with Kurdish groups and end the Turkish military's "deliberate massacre" of Kurdish civilians in Turkey's southeastern provinces.

Turkish scholar Nazan Bedirhanoglu, a professor at Ankara University, was among those who signed the petition. She was traveling in the U.S. with her infant daughter when Turkish officials jailed three other academics who'd signed the petition, on suspicion of making "terrorist propaganda." Dozens more were suspended or fired from their university jobs, including Bedirhanoglu.

"I was fired by government decree without any legal processing and my passport was canceled," she said. "I am banned from public service for life in Turkey."

Her temporary safe haven is at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

"Speaking truth in Turkey means you are going to end up in jail," said Bedirhanoglu, who relishes resuming her work on international political economies and Turkish foreign policy. "I can claim back the public responsibility that I have to speak out."

For Nepram, her placement in Connecticut is a lifeline. She has continued her activism, giving a recent lecture on how the women of Manipur state worked together to confront violence in a decades-old armed conflict between insurgents and the Indian military.

"Before I got this job, [American] people told me I could be a bartender or a babysitter," she said. "Every job has its dignity, but we have our skills."

Alahmad, the Syrian scholar now at Georgetown, said the fellowship has saved his life, his academic career and his children's future.

"It is very perfect," he said.

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