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Scholar rescue – Turning victims into heroes
The Institute of International Education will host a gala on 18 September in New York to honour four financial world leaders – Henry Jarecki (pictured), Henry Kaufman, George Soros and Thomas A Russo – for their role in founding the Scholar Rescue Fund in 2002.

The fund’s 10th anniversary gala, to be held at upmarket Cipriana Wall Street, will be attended by 400 leaders from business, education, government and foundations. Mark Angelson, former deputy mayor of Chicago, will be welcomed as incoming chair: he replaces Jarecki in that role later this year.

Were it not for the efforts, vision and commitment of Jarecki, Kaufman, Soros and Russo, nearly 500 scholars, academics and public intellectuals would today not be able to contribute to higher education within their home countries or the global academic community.

Sheltering dissident scholars

The Institute of International Education, or IIE, has been sheltering dissident scholars since its inception in 1919. Its laudable successes included the rescue of more than 300 threatened European scholars during the 1930s, Jarecki told University World News.

But a few opportunities were missed – notably, there was the loss of a generation of intellectuals purged during the Chinese Cultural Revolution – “in the absence of a permanent, dedicated, constant fund and staff able to carry out the necessary support and work”, according to Jarecki.

It was this that inspired him and his colleagues to form an organisation devoted solely to the rescue of persecuted scholars.

Thus, in 2002 the four IIE trustees created a permanent, formalised framework for responding to the humanitarian and academic needs of scholars whose lives and research are under threat for their beliefs or because of events in their countries.

Fellowships from the Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF) allow these human repositories of knowledge a temporary refuge (almost always at universities) to pursue their research and continue to collaborate with students, colleagues and the community.

These safe havens exist until conditions improve in their countries and they can return to help rebuild higher education.

Fellowships valued from US$20,000 to US$32,500 are matched by host institutions. Sources of funding have come from the Open Society Institute, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Alfred P Sloan Foundation, and the US Department of State, as well as from other organisations and many philanthropic individuals.

As Jarecki explained in the 2009 work that chronicled the organisation’s fifth anniversary, Scholar Rescue in the Modern World: “The SRF operates…where education, human rights and humanitarian relief come together.”

Scholar rescue for large-scale emergencies

Witness the response of the SRF in host country Jordan to the severe academic crisis affecting Iraq. Indeed, not since the 1930s has there been a single-country flood of scholars such as that which occurred from the former dictatorial regime after 2003.

In early 2007, the combination of an appeal to the IIE by former Iraqi minister of higher education Dr Abid Al-Ajeeli, and an exponential increase in applications to the fund, underlined the urgent need to assist scholars in the new Iraq.

With considerable support from the royal family – and in particular Prince Talal bin Muhammad and his wife Princess Ghida Talal – the SRF has been able to place nearly 130 Iraqi scholars (of a total 257 applicants) in 23 private and public higher education institutions in Jordan over the past six years.

Of these, more than 50 have since returned to their home institutions, with more expected to do so as they move through the fellowship system. This return rate is consistent with other SRF fellowship recipients in the programme.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The incoming SRF chair, Angelson, noted: "We expect this number to rise over time. Regrettably, we’re in a growth industry. We’re going to need more of what we’ve had in the past: more funding, continued support from existing host institutions as well as from new ones, and more safe havens.”

Pointing to the current situation in Syria, he observed: “I fear the SRF will see here the next Iraq in terms of need for scholar rescue.”

Not only have there been 500% more applications from Syria since the conflict began in March last year, but there has been a four-fold increase in the first eight months of 2012 alone over all those processed in the previous 10 years.

Already, this year, the SRF has awarded eight fellowships to Syrian scholars whose subjects range from neuroscience to gender studies and whose scholarship has been threatened as a result of everything from political involvement to membership of a minority community.

“The stories these scholars share with us are tragic,” Angelson remarked.

The achievement of scholar rescue can be seen in the work “graduating returnees” are able to accomplish once they are back in their home countries and institutions.

Angelson referred to a Burmese medical scholar whose outspoken advocacy of human rights in health care and against the State Peace and Development Council forced him to leave the country in 2009. SRF fellowships in the US and Ireland allowed him safe haven for two years.

“This scholar is the paradigm of what we’re trying to do: he’s back home now helping to foster university networks, expand health services and establish a Burmese chapter of Physicians for Human Rights.”

The future of scholar rescue

Looking to the future, Angelson stressed the importance of continuing the work envisioned by Jarecki, Kaufman, Soros and Russo in 2002, with a particular eye to “positioning the SRF to respond in the most immediate and impactful ways to challenges as they arise – including large-scale country-specific emergencies, as in Iraq and now potentially in Syria".

“We would like to increase our resources to better meet the high demand for our fellowships. At a minimum, we’re going to need to fund 50 grants per year. And this does not include large-scale country-specific needs.”

Stepping into Jarecki’s “very large shoes”, explained Angelson, was daunting. But he is encouraged by his mentor’s willingness to continue offering guidance and support in his capacity as chair emeritus.

Putting their efforts into perspective, Jarecki noted: “Of course, we are doing both ourselves and the host universities a favour by helping these scholars – not only from the point of view of internationalisation that brings important viewpoints to students, but more for the kind of spirit that naturally comes with the people we’re rescuing, people who are rarities in their academies as well as in ours.”

Individual scholars

Not all scholars see themselves this way – indeed, many only come to recognise the value of their contribution to the broader global academy through recourse to the SRF.

This is apparent in the remarks made by a recent SRF fellowship recipient. Now safely ensconced in a top institution, she will be able to continue to pursue her research – but only after narrowly avoiding a three-year prison sentence along with fellow academic and activist colleagues in her home country.

“I would never have thought of myself as a ‘hero’ until I met the SRF. Its support has turned me and others I know from being ‘victims’ into being ‘heroes’.”

* John Atta Mills, the late president of Ghana, will be honoured posthumously with the Fritz Redlich Alumni Award in recognition of his distinguished career as a president with a deep commitment to education. Mills was a Fulbright Scholar to Stanford University in 1971, and said his time there played a pivotal role in his education and career. IIE administers the Fulbright student, scholar and teacher programmes for the US Department of State.
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