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Published On Jun 13, 2017

Policy

Safe Harbor

Scientists in unstable regions sometimes fear for their lives. Allan Goodman helps them find refuge and a chance to work again.

After the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, many Russian scholars were forced to flee their country. They received help from the Institute of International Education, newly formed in the aftermath of World War I to foster stronger bonds among the world’s universities. The organization later helped researchers escape from Nazi Germany and dozens of other global hot zones.

The IIE has been busier than ever in recent years, says Allan Goodman, the organization’s CEO and president. Goodman oversaw the creation of a dedicated Scholar Rescue Fund in 2002. During the past 15 years, the fund has helped nearly 700 people from 56 countries find temporary research homes, in the United States and abroad.

Q: Why are researchers in danger?

A: Scholars have always been targets. We poison Socrates, we shoot professors who have the wrong religion, or we eliminate, in the Nazi period, scholars in whole departments of studies. But there’s never really been anything quite like the current times. Scholars are caught in the middle of so many conflicts, for so many reasons.

Q: Are academics in the medical field particularly singled out?

A: Killing a scholar is a way to intimidate a whole community. Targeting a medical researcher does this in a very immediate way. A terrorist may realize, “If I kill the cardiology or gynecology professor who runs a clinic, it’s not just one person that I’ve eliminated. I’ve eliminated health care to hundreds of people who depend on that person’s work.”

I don’t want to oversimplify the motivations, though. We recently helped several professors of pharmacy in a country that’s being overrun by Boko Haram. Maybe these professors were targeted because they were pharmacists. Maybe they were targeted because of their religion. Maybe they were targeted because they learned their subject in a Western country, and maybe all of the above contributes to why we needed to help them. Negotiating that level of complexity is strikingly new for us.

Q: How do you connect with people who need your help?

A: Half the time it’s the same way people found us in 1920 or 1940, through a colleague at Johns Hopkins or someone who they did research with at Princeton. The network of scholars know one another. And Mohammed calls this person who he used to work with and says, “I’ve been the victim of two assassination attempts now. Can you help me?”

The other half comes through our calls for applications. God bless the Internet, because it enables those in all kinds of circumstances to reach out.

Q: When you rescue a scholar, what happens next?

A: We find havens—colleagues and universities that take them in for a defined period, in the hope that the war will end, the terrorists will be captured or the regime will change. When you ask any of our scholars, “What’s your number one wish?” almost all the time the answer is, “I wish to go home just as soon as I possibly can.” They have dissertation students they’re supervising, they have families, they have a laboratory that needs tending. They don’t want to be refugees. They want to go back to their work.

Q: How do they adapt to their host countries?

A: Adapting to a new university almost always goes more smoothly than anyone anticipates. The scientific community has its own specialized language, spoken around the world, which makes things easier. And I think many of them look to the work as a kind of therapy, a way to erase the indignities they might have suffered.

A bigger challenge is when the scholar comes with five other family members. The institution or the research community where they have landed sees them struggling on all sorts of fronts: getting the kids dental care, moving into an apartment, looking for furniture, buying groceries. They almost always step in to help. We find that it does take a village.

Q: How can research institutions help?

A: Take in a displaced scientist. About 15,000 institutions are authorized to take foreign students and foreign scholars. If every one said, “As part of our reason for being, we’re going to welcome thinkers in distress, people in exile and threatened scholars”—I don’t know that it would solve the whole problem, but it would be a darn good start.

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