The Quest to Save the World’s Scholars From Persecution and Death

VICE News, June 2, 2015

By Justin Rohrlich

When Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, Albert Einstein was in Pasadena, California, serving as a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology. And so he was not in Germany when Nazi officials ransacked his home, confiscated his property, and seized his bank accounts. Nor was he there when they stripped him of his affiliations with the German science academies, burned his books, and accused him of treason.

Einstein did not return home as planned.

Instead, he became a professor at Princeton University and began advocating for other refugee academics, fervently supporting the Academic Assistance Council, which had been set up by British economist William Beveridge as a lifeline for scholars fleeing the Third Reich. By the end of World War II, the AAC had rescued more than 2,600 people, including 16 future Nobel Prize winners.

Silencing, imprisoning, or killing physicists and literature professors doesn’t seem like a way to win wars, but from Islamists storming a Kenyan university, to Sudanese doctors and student leaders disappearing at the hands of intelligence agents, to Syrian teachers finding themselves caught between the regime and militants, the danger academics face today is said to be worse than it has been since Einstein’s time.

“The university represents the state, and they are soft, easy targets,” says Diya Nijhowne, director of the US-based Global Coalition to Protect Education From Attack. “It’s much easier to blow up a university than a military installation.”

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Teaching undergraduates or conducting esoteric research are not ways to garner a great deal of sympathy.

“People don’t see professors and academics as particularly needy,” says Sarah Willcox, director of the Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF). “They are the ‘elite’ of society, so they don’t generally draw as sympathetic an ear.”

SRF has underwritten fellowships for 602 at-risk scholars from 53 countries over the past 13 years. SRF is a division of the Institute of International Education (IIE), which administers the Fulbright Program for the State Department, and maintains offices across the street from United Nations headquarters. The 10-person staff reviews and verifies an applicant’s credentials as well as any reported threats. A dossier is then prepared for a selection committee, which makes decisions based upon something called the Rupp Doctrine.

It’s named for IIE board member George Rupp, a former president of the International Rescue Committee — a humanitarian aid group founded in 1933 thanks to Einstein. As long as applicants are not accused of serious crimes or human rights violations, their politics are ignored, and only two questions are asked to determine if they qualify: “Is this applicant a scholar?” and “Are they at risk?”

Currently, the most acute demand is in Syria, where universities have reportedly lost about one third of their professors and at least 100,000 students. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has long maintained a vast network of agents and informants at universities, so any contact between SRF and Syrian scholars must have a cloak-and-dagger element.

“We always have to be very cautious how we communicate,” Willcox says. “We typically work very quietly through intermediaries and trusted contacts. We don’t use the phone, and email language is very careful, particularly with someone we don’t know yet.”

When the Arab Spring swept into Damascus in early 2011, agricultural economist Ahmad Sadiddin was a vocal pro-democracy proponent. He had been deferring his mandatory 12-month stint in the Syrian Arab Army while pursuing advanced degrees, but when the student deferment was abruptly ended, Sadiddin was conscripted. Unwilling to fight for Assad, Sadiddin emailed a friend in the United States who then contacted SRF. They arranged a position for him in Italy, and in August 2012, Sadiddin went AWOL.

He hid out on his parents’ farm in Al-Rastan while looking for a smuggler who could deliver him to the Turkish border. Sadiddin had no valid ID or passport; he could only renew them upon completion of his military service. The Turkish government, however, had recently set up a special intake apparatus for Syrian refugees who lacked documents, and after two days of being moved from safe house to safe house and from cars to motorcycles to trucks — under normal circumstances the journey would have been a simple two-hour drive — Sadiddin escaped into Turkey.

A month later, he headed for the University of Florence, where he now focuses on irrigation and water management instead of on his need to stay out of sight. His wife, who was a food scientist in Syria, joined him in Italy a few months after he arrived.

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The idea of saving the next Einstein is a romantic one. Yet, says Robert Quinn, executive director of the Scholars At Risk Network, it largely misses the point.

“It’s what motivates some people, and I get it,” Quinn says from his office at New York University, where SAR has been based since 2003. “But I’m motivated not so much by protecting the content of individual ideas as I am by protecting the freedom to think and to have ideas and ask questions.”

Quinn, a lawyer by trade, started SAR in 1999 as part of the University of Chicago’s Human Rights Program, and describes it as “a sort of underground railroad, where we have a network of nodes of individuals and institutions that will help people move along.” SAR’s mission is similar to that of SRF; Quinn is actually the former founding executive director of SRF. SAR, SRF, and the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) — it’s the current name of the Academic Assistance Council, the group Einstein supported after settling in America — all work together closely.

Unlike SRF, which has a $50 million endowment, SAR is funded entirely by donors’ gifts, grants, and “other irregular sources of third-party support.” Its 11-person staff includes an attorney/advocacy officer, three protection services officers dealing with security issues, and program officers with experience at places like the Aspen Institute and the International Criminal Court. They take on between 50 and 75 cases annually in countries all over the world, but say they have seen more than a 15 percent increase in requests for assistance over the past year.

As Quinn points out, the persecution of scholars doesn’t occur only in war zones. A lecturer at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, Teng Biao also represented AIDS activists, Falun Gong practitioners, dissidents, and others who the rest of the Chinese bar wouldn’t touch. For his efforts, the Chinese government confiscated his passport, disbarred him, shut down his NGO, and took away his teaching license. In 2011, after attending a luncheon during which he discussed ways he might help embattled blind activist Chen Guangcheng, Teng says he was imprisoned and tortured for 70 days.

The following year, he was able to make his way to relative safety in Hong Kong. SAR and Human Rights Watch then arranged a fellowship for him at Harvard Law School. Teng arrived in Boston last September and is now focusing on the issues he wasn’t allowed to focus on in China.

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Einstein never made it back to Germany, but Quinn says getting people back home is SAR’s end game.

“The idea is to keep scholars safe so that when the dust does settle, there are people who can go back and rebuild,” he says.

Guilain Mathé tried to go back. He first fled persecution in 2008, leaving the Democratic Republic of the Congo for a position in Senegal, with assistance from SRF. (Local political bosses and religious leaders were unhappy with his master’s thesis, in which he exposed links between the church and armed militias.) When Mathé returned to the DRC for two months in mid-2014 to conduct research for his doctoral dissertation, he says he was arrested, detained, extorted, threatened, and accused of being a spy, and that his research assistant was jailed and beaten. Mathé says he managed to make it across the border into Uganda a half-step ahead of Congolese military intelligence.

“After my last experience [in DRC], I decided to submit an asylum request in Switzerland,” Mathé says from his office at the University of Lausanne, where he was placed by SAR in 2011. “I love my country, but it is not safe for me to go back right now. So I will continue to work on Congolese issues — from here.”