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Between Tragedy and Statistics: The Endangered Safety of Scholars

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Cuora Consulting continues its series of articles with a report about the issue of the wellbeing of scholars researching controversial topics in oppressive regimes

“The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of many is a statistic”. By now, most of us have heard of the tragic death of Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD student, tortured and eventually killed by the hands of an unknown assailant. Speculations have emerged that the culprit was the Egyptian government. This article shall, however, not deal with this case alone; but shall focus on a topic that seems to be largely ignored – the sacrifice that academics make for the sake of their research. The sciences have produced a lot of important, albeit sometimes controversial insights and therefore have fallen under the scrutiny of authoritarian regimes.

Regeni’s Ph.D. research focused on the formation of independent trade unions in post-Mubarak Egypt, a highly controversial topic. Aside from his formal research, Regeni wrote critical articles about the incumbent President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his government. The example of Regeni is an extremely tragic one that reveals the issues scholars face, especially those working in geopolitical hotspots. Still, this type of fieldwork is indispensable for creating up-to date knowledge on societal and economic trends and consequently constitutes an essential element of research in the social sciences.

Another tragedy that made the headlines in August 2015 was the beheading of Khalid al-Asaad, an internationally renowned scholar of antiquities. Responsible for his killing was the terrorist organization ISIS, and the reason was his refusal to disclose the location of archaeological treasures. These were moved for safekeeping from Palmyra, one of the Middle East’s most important archaeological landmarks and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This case is yet another example that shows the dangers many scholars face, particularly in the Middle East. Moreover, it highlights the importance of these scholars’ research not only for their disciplines, but also for humankind as a whole. The relics that Mr. al-Asaad died protecting are one-of-a-kind artifacts that benefit the understanding of human history.

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Unfortunately, Mr. Regeni and Mr. Al-Asaad‘s brutal murders are not individual cases, but are part of a larger attack on the freedom of knowledge and intellectuality. The academia in danger, however, is not abandoned in their fate. An internationally operating nonprofit organization called The Institute of International Education (IIE) has taken up their cause, participating in the rescue of persecuted scholars since its founding in 1919. In 2002, IIE launched the Scholar Rescue Fund to “formalize its commitment to preserving the lives, voices, and ideas of scholars around the globe.“ Briefly put, scholars in dangerous situations apply for assistance, after which the fund reviews each case; first to determine whether the person is actually a scholar and in peril. After, the fund begins finding ways to get in touch with the applicant, relying on the scholar’s community of neighbors and a variety of nongovernmental organizations. Confidentiality is paramount. Next, the scholar finds his or her way out of the country. The fund provides the scholar with a one-year fellowship at a university in a safe location where he or she can continue pursuing research.

Since 2002, IIE-SRF has assisted 631 scholars from 55 countries. The fund’s work involves a great deal of behind-the-scenes effort, like finding financial resources as well as universities willing to host scholars.  The fund‘s officials stress that in recent years its work has shifted from tackling the persecution of individuals to focusing on conflict response, as more and more scholars are at risk. The institute is now trying to find national solutions to large emergencies — such as the emergence of ISIS — through the collaboration of many organizations. We can only hope that it succeeds in the preservation of lives and knowledge, and thus can prevent the individual tragedies from becoming mere statistics.

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