Special fund brings scholars to safe shores
NEW YORK — Ever since his days as a student in the late 1970s, Ahmed Mansour's views on Islam have stirred controversy. While studying and teaching at Egypt's Al-Azhar University, Dr. Mansour antagonized both national and religious authorities by challenging accepted interpretations of the Koran and by opposing violence toward Egyptian Christians. As a result, censorship and violence followed Mansour throughout his academic career, beginning with the requirement that he omit two-thirds of his doctoral thesis in 1980. In all, seven of his 21 books were banned.
While trying to start a new political party in the 1990s, his activist partner was killed.
Finally in 2001 - after he, his family, and colleagues received death threats - Mansour fled to the United States where he was granted political asylum. There, with help from the Scholar Rescue Fund, Mansour was able to secure a grant from Harvard University Law School, enabling him to complete a research project on the teaching of Wahabi Islam - an extremist Sunni sect - in the US.
Settling a refugee scholar into an academic post in a safe country is exactly the task the Scholar Rescue Fund was created to perform.
The group is a project of the New York-based Institute of International Education, which also administers the prestigious Fulbright scholarship program. The Scholar Rescue Fund, created two years ago, helps victimized academics pursue their work in other countries until it is safe for them to return home.
Since World War I, philanthropic groups have reached out to academics like Mansour in times of war or intense conflict, but the Scholar Rescue Fund works on a different timetable. The group was created to provide protection for intellectuals from the moment danger arises.
The fund works to help academics leave countries where they may have experienced death threats, censorship, or imprisonment. Often their ideas are controversial or appear to their governments to threaten the status quo.
The goal is not to permanently remove these thinkers from their own countries but rather to help them find safer teaching positions abroad until tensions ease at home.
Scholars are accepted for assistance on the basis of the gravity of their situations and the quality of their work. Grants are typically for one-year appointments, with longer terms available in some cases.
Nearly 50 individuals from more than 20 countries have been placed since the fund was created in 2002.
Other groups - like the US-based Scholars at Risk Network and the British organization Council for Assisting Refugee Academics - also help academics like Mansour find placements.
But only the Scholar Rescue Fund offers financial assistance, which typically amounts to half the individual's salary for the year, with the host university making up the rest.
The fund is also unique in that it places scholars worldwide - positions have been found in France, Norway, South Africa, and Mexico. "There's no question that some of those awards were life-saving," says Robert Quinn, the fund's director. "All of them were career-saving."
Scholar rescue has been practiced in various forms for nearly a century. One of the first to do it was the internationally active World's Student Christian Federation.
When students and professors lost their homes and livelihoods as a result of World War I, the group responded by providing clothing, books, food, and shelter. Later, in the years before World War II, the Institute for International Education's Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars and the New School for Social Research worked together to relocate intellectuals at risk in Hitler's Germany.
The Emergency Committee was dismantled after the war, but the institute continued to help scholars around the globe at moments of danger such as the Soviet occupation of Prague in 1968, China's Tiananmen Square massacre, and the "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia.
But the institute was not always able to help when events moved too rapidly.
"The problem with that model, which they came to see particularly after [Slobodan] Milosevic in Yugoslavia, was that if you wait for the crisis to happen, you're behind the game when you are trying to assist people," says Mr. Quinn.
At the time of World War II, placement groups had an advantage in that the world moved more slowly. They were informed early on of what was happening by Albert Einstein, who warned Churchill of Nazi dangers when he visited Britain in 1933. Einstein assisted academic refugees through the Emergency Committee and other organizations.
But today, with world conflicts igniting more quickly, the institute has found that it is better to have an infrastructure in place at all times. This led to the founding of the Scholar Rescue Fund in 2002.
The fund turned into a life-saver for historian José Portillo. He had taught for 10 years at the University of the Basque Country in Spain, where he was targeted for his political activism against the Basque separatist group, ETA.
In 1998 his car was set on fire. In 1999 his car was targeted again, but this time with a bomb that exploded within earshot of his university classroom.
Mr. Portillo asked for a sabbatical year, during which he did research at the University of Texas. He was then appointed as a visiting scholar for one year at Georgetown University in Washington. Wishing to extend his time in the US, he applied to the University of Nevada at Reno. The university was only able to appoint him with the help of funding from the Scholar Rescue Fund.
This June Portillo plans to go back to a different part of Spain, where he will continue to speak out against ETA. But he hopes the four-year break in the United States and the changing political situation in Spain will allow him to raise his 16-month-old daughter safely in Spain. "We want to come back to Spain and have a normal life," he says. "I think that will be possible for us now."
The rescue fund's backers predict that its reach will grow in the years to come.
"I see it expanding all over the world, wherever scholars are in danger," says Ruth Gruber, a journalist, photographer, and author who has been serving as a spokeswoman for the group.
Born in 1911, Dr. Gruber developed a passion for international intellectual exchange throughout a lifetime of travel, beginning with her experiences as an American exchange student in pre-World War II Germany. There she studied Nietzsche and even attended a Nazi rally out of curiosity. At age 20 she was purported to be the youngest PhD recipient in the world.
Gruber began her work as a journalist in 1932, and in 1935 she was asked by the New York Herald Tribune to report on women in communist and fascist countries. Having seen her reports, Harold Ickes, secretary of the Interior under Franklin Roosevelt, asked her to travel to Alaska and investigate its homestead possibilities for World War II GIs.
Gruber's involvement with international refugees began in 1944, when Mr. Ickes asked her to help shepherd a group of 1,000 European Jews to the US.
A few of those new Americans made significant contributions to medicine and science, including inventions like the CAT-Scan and the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine.
Gruber later worked for the New York Post, covering Jewish immigration to Palestine from displaced persons camps after the war. Having seen and worked firsthand both with displaced persons and those who live under oppressive regimes, Gruber feels a sense of urgency about the work of the rescue fund.
"To be in the process of rescuing scholars," she says, "it's more than rescuing people, it's rescuing ideas."