I do not know how many of you, readers of this blog, know about Scholars at Risk. It is a global network of universities that has as its main purpose providing safe havens for those scholars who are persecuted in their home countries. Persecution can be understood as anything from prohibiting access to information, to limiting contact to the (inter)national scientific community, to losing one’s job or even being sent to prison because of one’s research and teaching.
Two success stories are highlighted on the web page of Scholars at Risk. One is Felix Kaputu, a former professor of literature in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who was accused of participating in a separatist movement and then deposed from his university chair and sent to prison in solitary confinement, condemned for life. Another example is Abdul Sattar Jawad, a professor of Comparative Literature and later on Dean of an Iraqi university, who received numerous death threats and who eventually fled the country to save his and his family’s life. Both scholars found a refuge at two universities who invited them, respectively, for two-year temporary teaching positions. They were able to establish a legal residence in the host country, and to continue their academic work. Both of them were able to find positions at other universities after the initial two years in the Scholars at Risk program, escaping the threat of maltreatment in their respective home countries.
The Scholars at Risk network builds on the idea of universities as refuges for threatened scholars. The universities involved in the network promise to provide to the scholars under threat a visiting teaching or research position together with a place to live for a period of two years, during which the scholars would have the chance to develop personal contacts opening the door for other positions at the end of the two-years’ time. The same principle is used by other networks for the protection of political activists whose lives are endangered, such as the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), where writers and activists are hosted by individual cities at the expense of the local government.
It is hard for me, writing from the comfort of my office at a peaceful and rich university in Sweden, to imagine what it is like to wake up and go to bed, day after day, with the feeling that one is a criminal just because one teaches or does research on a topic that some government does not agree with. Or even worse, to wake up knowing that every day may be the last day in the office, in the classroom. I do remember reading the memoirs of public intellectuals active in Eastern Europe during the Communist period. I remember their stories of being sent to long prison sentences involving heavy labor, or being kicked out of the university and prevented from getting a job, any job. Stories of how these dissidents’ relatives could not go to college because of the wrong last name.
This is the reason why initiatives such as Scholars at Risk appeal to my sense of justice and to my belief in academic freedom. The annual prize given to a person with an outstanding contribution to the protection of the public intellectual is named “Courage to Think”. I find that this title says it all.
Anamaria writes from Lund, Sweden. She is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus.