Where Refugee Scholars, Artists and Activists Find Safety and Thrive

Fathiah Zakham studied tuberculosis in Yemen until a bomb destroyed the university where she was working. Through the Scholar Rescue Fund, she received safe haven in Helsinki to study.

Ahmad Sadiddin was an agronomist in a region that history books call the Fertile Crescent, an arc around the eastern Mediterranean where settled farming began in ancient times. Iraq and Syria were once part of that productive land before it was torn apart by the horrors of dictatorship, civil wars and the reductionism and destruction of the Islamic State. Sadiddin’s life and career were also left in pieces.

On Oct. 1, after years of striving to maintain his skills and produce innovative research, Sadiddin was appointed a staff economist at the Cairo regional center of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), where he will focus on sustainable agricultural development in the Middle East and North Africa.

His story is featured in the latest newsletter from the Institute of International Education, founded in 1919, after World War I, to support freedom of thought and international exchanges. In 2002, it established the Scholar Rescue Fund, which helped Sadiddin obtain a fellowship at the University of Florence in Italy in 2013. His research there led to an FAO consultancy and now a staff appointment.

Since its founding, the Scholar Rescue Fund reports that it has supported more than 770 scholars, cultural leaders and activists from 59 nations, placing them at over 390 partner institutions in 44 countries worldwide.

This year for the first time, the fund is sharing data publicly about the accomplishments  of the range of people it has steered into new lives. In 2018, these rescued refugees reported among them 191 books and articles published, 217 lectures or presentations delivered and 105 students’ studies supervised by them in numerous institutions.

Not all recipients are, strictly speaking, scholars. Binalakshmi Nepram, who fled remote northeast India in 2017, fearing for her life because of her disarmament activism in that unsettled region, told her story in PassBlue after her arrival in New York. In January, she began a fellowship at Connecticut College.

Nepram recently won the 2018 Anna Politkovskaya Award for her work as the leader of the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network and Control Arms Foundation of India. The award, presented annually by the rights organization Reach All Women in War, is named in honor of a Russian journalist assassinated in 2006.

Beyond the Institute of International Education and its partners, there are many other individual programs in colleges and universities as well as research institutions in the sciences and arts that bring refugee professionals into their faculties on fellowships.

There are also artists and writers who on their own have found their feet in new places and have time to reflect on what they and their families have lost. They are producing works that have garnered positive attention from reviewers.

Two recently published debut authors — both women and New Yorkers — have written novels drawn from the tragedies that have engulfed the Middle East. Hala Alyan, a Palestinian-American poet and psychologist, is the author of “Salt Houses,” about Palestinian displacement through several generations of a family across the region. Although it is fiction, it echoes her own history as her family moved from place to place, losing and trying to regain their bearings.

Zeynab (Jennifer) Joukhadar, the daughter of a Syrian Muslim father and American Christian mother, built a particularly erudite novel, “The Map of Salt and Stars,” around two fatherless girls, one who lived in the ancient past and the other in the present. Both girls were caught up in perilous adventures in a tumultuous Arab world. Both were looking to find lost homes. Their overlapping tales offer not only moments of fantasy and magic but also reflections of contemporary reality.

Joukhadar is a member of RAWI, the Radius of Arab American Writers, a nonprofit organization that supports both creative and scholarly Arab-American writers and others with roots in the Arabic-speaking world.

Ahmad Sadiddin, the Syrian agronomist, shares the opinions of other refugees who have found career-saving positions away from conflict and displacement but are worried about doors closing to migrants in some Western countries. He said there should be greater recognition of the skills and talents refugees can bring in return for safe places to live and work.

In an interview published by the Scholar Rescue Fund, Sadiddin said that countries restricting immigration often need qualified people to fill spaces left by declining populations, particularly in agriculture, his specialty. In Europe, for example, the average age of farmers is 55 and rural areas need more youthful workers. Immigrants can benefit these countries, Sadiddin said, “if they are given the opportunity.”

There are nearly two dozen scholars, most of them men with graduate degrees, on the current list of applicants for fellowships. They include an astrophysicist from Azerbaijan; an expert in remote sensing and geographic information systems from Palestine; a food scientist from Yemen; a film-studies scholar from Bangladesh; and an anthropologist from Russia.

The largest number of scholars from any single country seeking placement abroad are eight Ph.D.s from Turkey, two of them women, one in economics and one in law. Intellectual space must be narrowing for Turks.

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