As political strife is a constant around the globe, the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund assists scholars whose academic freedom is threatened in their home countries.
Dr. Felix Kaputu’s quiet life as an English and Biblical scholar researching comparative religions belies the disquiet of his life a few years ago.
In 2005, living in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kaputu was arrested and accused of participating in a separatist movement outlawed by the government — charges he denies. He and other political detainees were incarcerated for several months, enduring beatings and torture. Amnesty International and other human rights groups pressed for the release of Kaputu and other prisoners, and after four months Kaputu was set free.
His experiences qualified him for support from the Scholar Rescue Fund, a project of the nonprofit Institute of International Education, perhaps best known for administering the Fulbright Student and Scholars program. He spent a year teaching and writing at an East Coast university in the United States. A year after his release, with the Scholar Rescue Fund’s support, Kaputu relocated to Japan where he has continued his comparative project on Shamanism as practiced in Northern Japan (Itako) and in Central Africa (Bikishi).
“If I did not leave at that time, anything could happen to me. I could be found dead on the road, in my house or I could be arrested again,” Kaputu says.
He is one of hundreds of men and women seeking exile because of their academic status or expressed views and ideas in nations where freedom of expression is suppressed.
“Many such scholars live in countries led by dictators and are forced to forget any understanding of human democracy, freedom, especially freedom of expression,” Kaputu continues. “Here and there, they are even forced into unacceptable positions or into giving statements that contradict their profession, their faith and whatever they stand for.”
Dr. Henry Jarecki, board chairman of the fund, says it typically provides fellowships for one to two years and that up to 50 percent of the scholars return to their home countries, though often to a different area. In most of those cases, by that time the leadership has changed or the politics have changed.
Jarecki says, interestingly, it is not always difficult to get the scholars out of the countries. “We have learned that by and large when [government leaders] find that scholars are willing to escape, the government says ‘go’ and will allow them to leave,” Miller said.
Since 2002, the Scholar Rescue Fund has received more than 1,800 requests for assistance from people in more than 100 countries, SRF executive director Jim Miller said in a recent interview with America.gov. “Scholars in virtually every discipline have become victim to the ravages of disease, war or economic chaos.”
One scholar, who cannot be identified for safety reasons, was active in promoting human rights in Zimbabwe, where the recent presidential election has yet to be resolved following reports of violence against supporters of the opposition party. The scholar has since studied and taught in the United States at a small liberal arts college with the support of the SRF, which he credits with literally saving his life.
“If it wasn’t for the Scholar Rescue Fund, I would either be dead or in prison in Zimbabwe. I was detained, beaten up and harassed by the oppressive government of Zimbabwe while I was a professor at one of the universities,” the scholar wrote in an email statement. “I am eternally grateful for the excellent support I have received from the Scholar Rescue Fund.
“The Scholar Rescue Fund, in my view, plays an extremely important role in preserving intellectual capital by ensuring that scholars whose academic freedom is threatened in their home country can continue their research and teaching in safer environments like the United States,” he continued.
Jarecki says the Rescue Fund receives applications from professors and other academics in many countries including, China, Colombia, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Sudan. “We have come to understand the pervasiveness of academic persecution,” Jarecki says.
The Scholar Rescue Fund has introduced a specific initiative to address critical needs in Iraq. The Iraq Scholar Rescue Project assists more than 150 senior academics who have been threatened, harmed or intimidated. The project places them in temporary positions at universities, colleges and other institutions of higher learning in the Middle East, North Africa and other regions. “In doing so, the Scholar Rescue Fund hopes to contribute to the preservation of Iraq’s vital intellectual capital and ensure that, when conditions permit, these scholars will be able to return home to rebuild their once flourishing academic communities,” the Web site explains.
A Storied History
Another new project is the Scholar Rescue Fund World Report, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Due for completion this summer, the report will demonstrate “the breadth and nature of the persecution of scholars around the globe.” It is based on the data from the first five years of activity of the Scholar Rescue Fund.
Prior to the introduction of the Rescue Fund, IIE had a storied history. Its mission of assisting scholars throughout the world dates back to its founding in 1919. Scholars threatened by the regimes of Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler found safe haven and financial support with the help of the IIE. In the 1930s, newsman Edward R. Murrow began his career as IIE’s assistant director, helping to find lectureships for hundreds of European refugee scholars. The Scholar Rescue Fund was initiated in 2002 with the specific goal of relocating imperiled academics.
The academics are selected for the program using criteria that include the strength of their work, the level of harm or intimidation they have experienced and their potential value to the host institutions. A Jordanian newspaper recently published an article stating that Jordan was hosting 26 Rescue Fund academics at nine universities. Other Middle East host nations include Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
, Kaputu’s appointment at a research center in Japan lasts until March 2009. At that point his future — and that of his family who joined him in exile last year — will be uncertain.
With a Ph.D. in English literature-based Biblical analysis and comparative literature from University of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he speaks French, English, Dutch and 15 sub-Saharan African languages. He also is learning Japanese at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies.
Kaputu says he anticipates continued “instability and difficulties” in his country. “The ones who put me in jail have become more powerful. The economic and political conditions have not improved.” So he is actively seeking a position at an academic institution in the United States after March 2009.
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