The application from an Iraqi university professor to the Scholar Rescue Fund was chilling. It described how he had been pressured relentlessly by a local militia to promote its agenda in his publications. He had received multiple death threats, he wrote, including a message left in his classroom saying simply: “We are waiting for you.” Still, he continued to teach until his sister was abducted and killed to underscore the threat to him. At that point, the professor finally reached out to our organization, in the hope of finding a safe haven.
Another professor from Iraq described how she went into hiding after her husband was killed in front of their 9-year-old son by an improvised explosive device placed under their car. “My husband was targeted because he was a scholar and a scientist,” she wrote. “Our son keeps saying ‘Baba slept on my arm,' meaning that his father died in his arms.”
These scholars are just two of more than 100 who have sought help in recent months from our organization, which helps arrange emergency placement and funding for imperiled academics seeking visiting scholar positions at universities outside their war-torn countries.
More scholars are displaced and in danger now than at any time since the start of World War II. With the rapid advance of Islamic State, university systems in Iraq and Syria are in ruins. Campuses have been converted into makeshift militia bases and refugee camps. And the very achievements that under ordinary circumstances convey honor and prestige on scholars are bringing them brutality, persecution and threats of assassination.
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Saving these threatened professors is crucial to post-conflict stability. Not only will their intellects and expertise be essential to creating functioning societies once the fighting stops; they are also the ones who will provide opportunity for the next generation — and an alternative to jihadist militias.
Amal Alachkar, a neuroscience professor from Syria, put it this way: “The regime will fall sooner or later, but the country will have to be rebuilt.”
With the help of a visiting fellowship, Alachkar came to UC Irvine to continue her important research on the neurological causes of psychiatric disorders. But she is eager to return when the threat lifts.
“We are facing a lost generation, hundreds of thousands of students lacking access to education,” she says. “A new higher education system is essential to bring back the culture of freedom, democracy, tolerance and reconciliation in Syria. Without all this we are going to face a fragmented country.”
We are working to provide as many of these scholars as possible with fellowships and secure places to continue their work until they can return safely to rebuild their once flourishing academic communities, but much more is needed. The professors need colleges and universities to host them as visiting scholars, and they need funds to meet their basic costs of living. In the past 12 years, we have placed nearly 600 faculty members from 51 countries at universities in 40 countries. Twenty-four of them have come to California campuses — public and private, large and small. But with the current crisis, the number of applications we have received for temporary fellowships has more than tripled over the last year.
And it really is temporary help for which the scholars are asking. Ask them about their fondest wishes, and the answer is almost always, “I want to go home.”
We urge more campuses, not just in California but around the world — anywhere that universities still are safe havens for teaching and learning — to host a visiting scholar. It won’t be the scholar alone who benefits.
Since 2013, Rutgers University has hosted three scholars: an Ethiopian, an Iranian and an Iraqi, in diverse fields.
“These scholars have challenged students, stimulated faculty and made Rutgers a stronger intellectual community,” says Alison Bernstein, director of the Rutgers University Institute for Women’s Leadership.
American academics have genuine worries about grants, course loads and tenure. But for the scholars with whom we work, the stakes are far higher. As a professor and biology researcher in Baghdad wrote to us recently, after having been stabbed in the neck on his way to work, “I live every day of my life wondering if today will be my last.”
As government leaders struggle to find the right military approach, the international academic community also has a responsibility to do its part by rescuing the people who are essential to rebuilding their war-torn societies when Islamic State is defeated.