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Supporting scholars at risk

Supporting scholars at risk


Mustafa Bahran, a nuclear physicist, escaped by car from Yemen to Saudi Arabia in 2015, fearing someone — perhaps a former student — would recognize him at one of 20 checkpoints along the way. He made it across safely. Bahran and his family were in danger in Yemen after he declined to “get his hands dirty” by serving in government at the start of a civil war that is still raging. Unable to get residency status in Saudi Arabia, he applied for jobs in North America and came across the Scholars at Risk (SAR) network.

He received financial support from SAR and the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE-SRF), first to teach at the University of Oklahoma, where he had studied years earlier, and then in 2018 at Carleton University where he now teaches on contract.

Bahran’s family sought refuge in Canada because he and his wife feared their son might be deported to Yemen when he turned 18, under then President Donald Trump’s policies. Now, age 60 and with no end to the war in sight, Bahran and his family are settled in Ottawa. “I’m looking forward to the future I won’t see but my kids will see,” he said.

SAR and IIE-SRF are two pathways to Canada for academics around the world who are at risk of violence. Among others are direct applications to post-secondary institutions for studying, researching, or teaching; private refugee sponsorship; the federal government’s new visa program for human rights defenders; and the student refugee sponsorship program of the World University Service of Canada.

SAR is a New York-based global non-governmental organization that aims to prevent attacks on academics and has helped more than 1,600 threatened scholars by creating teaching, research and study positions at 300 host campuses since its inception in 2000.

There are 25 host universities in SAR’s Canadian chapter. That’s three more than in 2020. “But we have 95 universities in Canada and a ton of colleges,” says SAR Canada director Viviana Fernandez, who is based at the University of Ottawa. “I think we can do much better.”

The top five countries for scholars requesting SAR assistance in 2021 were Afghanistan, Turkey, Yemen, Myanmar and Ethiopia.

The IIE-SRF arranges and funds fellowships for threatened and displaced scholars at partnering higher education institutions worldwide. It has 12 Canadian university partners.

“At the heart of IIE-SRF is the idea that each scholar we support is a beacon of hope in our world,” said spokesperson Marissa Hutton. Since 2002, IIE-SRF has supported 916 scholars from 60 countries in partnership with 434 host institutions in 50 countries. Among the scholars’ home countries are Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Myanmar and Venezuela.

Joanna Quinn, a professor at Western University’s political science department, is on the SAR Canada national steering committee. She cites the story of Anna Dolidze, “a brilliant woman who stood up to the president of Georgia and had to flee,” as an example of success.

Dolidze, a human rights lawyer, was threatened by Georgia’s authoritarian government. Her phone was tapped and public court hearings, vital to her work, were abolished. Her husband had been beaten, arrested and imprisoned several times.

SAR arranged a fellowship for Dolidze at New York University School of Law, and she completed her doctorate in law at Cornell. The first SAR scholar ever hosted at Western in London, Ontario in 2012, Dolidze came to Canada on a post-doctoral research visa and was later offered a tenure-track position teaching law. When political leadership changed for the better in Georgia, however, she returned to teach and entered the public service. Last spring, Dolidze launched a national political party.

The financial and emotional support SAR provided was “absolutely instrumental in our settlement in the U.S. first and then in Canada,” Dolidze said. “Imagine a couple of strangers in a strange land.”

As Quinn tells it, there is a job in the SAR network for everyone, from a dean who ensures a faculty position, to the official who greets a scholar at the airport with a gift basket, to the students who raise funds for winter coats for a scholars’ children. “It’s a big tent and it takes every person we can find.”

Western is a campus where the academic staff association contributes annually to the SAR program because “we see it as a part of academic freedom.” Other universities raise funds for SAR from donors or use administration funds.

Quinn said it’s sometimes tricky to figure out the immigration route the scholar is going to take. “We would often think let’s just bring someone as a visiting researcher, but the government immigration requires that person to provide a letter from their employer saying that not only are they coming but they guarantee they’re going back at the end of the year or two years,” she said. “That’s a tricky thing to promise for a scholar at risk who for reasons [of] intellectual or physical security, we don’t know if that person is ever going to be able to go back.”

That difficulty is apparent in the current Afghan crisis — a crisis for which many CAUT members are both experts and advocates in trying to address. A student from Afghanistan told the CAUT Bulletin that their “dreams are shattered” and they face “a life and death situation” after a Canadian immigration official in Pakistan denied their student visa on grounds they may not return to Afghanistan when their studies are done.

The student had met all requirements and received a scholarship for an MA program at a Canadian university. They fled Afghanistan to submit their student visa application in Pakistan. Permission to stay in Pakistan will soon expire and their life would be at risk if they returned to Afghanistan.

The requirement of convincing a Canadian official that you will return to the country you are fleeing is a “Catch 22” that could be blocking hundreds — if not thousands of Afghan students seeking refuge in Canada — said Professor Wendy Cukier of Ryerson University.

She is founder of Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute and a key organizer at Lifeline Afghanistan, one of the main groups in Canada mobilizing support across the country for 40,000 refugees and vulnerable Afghans the federal government promised to authorize for Canadian entry. “Their circumstances are dire,” she said.

The Taliban severely restricts the rights of women and girls, banning or restricting their access to education and jobs.

Fernandez, assistant director at the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa, said SAR got permission to recommend scholars for the federal government’s new program last year to provide visas for up to 250 human rights defenders, including their families. However, Fernandez said the program is far too small.

“Hopefully the government will decide to upgrade the capacity of the program because it just doesn’t make any sense to create such a hullaballoo for [only] 250 people,” she said.

Fernandez expressed frustration that the federal government hasn’t clarified rules for assisting scholars from Afghanistan, a matter that has generated a lot of new interest in SAR. “The crisis in Afghanistan really put front and centre how quickly a country can deteriorate and how precarious the situation can be for academics that are in such situations,” she said.

While the federal government has pledged to taken in 40,000 Afghan refugees, as of late January just 7,000 had arrived.

Sociology professor Catherine Krull at the University of Victoria is setting up a potential model for universities to clear pathways for scholars, especially when there’s a surge of people, like the Afghans, who need help quickly.

The Global Emergency Response Committee at UVic includes representatives from the Office of Global Engagement, the academic staff association, immigration experts, student affairs, faculty deans and others.

"We wanted an institutional structure in place at UVic so that we could be more responsive to global crises," she said. The committee is assessing best practices at other institutions, drawing together various forms of support such as student scholarships, post-doc, and limited term faculty positions, as well as budget planning and outreach with organizations such as SAR.

Bahran, the Yemeni scholar now working at Carleton University, said preserving and advancing human knowledge is so vital that scholars have a duty to escape to safety if their scholarship or their lives are in jeopardy. Even if they cannot return home in a year or two, they might be able to return years later, he said. And if they don’t return, they can contribute from abroad.

Since coming to Canada, Bahran has helped scores of young scholars leave Yemen and settle elsewhere and has organized a global group of about 1,000 professionals in the Yemeni diaspora to prepare for rebuilding their country post-conflict.

"You will be able to escape carnage and misery and death, preserve your knowledge and help your fellow citizens from wherever you are once you leave,” he tells them. “Once the trouble stops and the country goes back to normal you can go back to your country or save your country from where you are. Either way you will be an added value to the future of your country.” 


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