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Committee attempts to find home for Syrian scholars

U. brings master’s student, scholar to Brown after displacement caused by civil war in Syria

Over the past year, the Brown University Response Committee to Host Displaced Scholars and Students has brought one scholar and accepted one master’s student displaced by the crisis in Syria. The committee is working with partners to identify more students and scholars from Syria and possibly others from war-torn nations like Iraq and Yemen who could be brought to Brown.

Provost Richard Locke P’17 said that as he watched the Syrian refugee crisis dominate the news cycle over summer 2015, he began to think about what kind of project the administration could take on to provide support to displaced scholars and students. He formed the committee, which is now comprised of administrators, faculty members and students, in order to inform and guide the University’s work to bring displaced scholars and students to Brown so that they can continue their research, teaching and education.

“We know that Brown University can’t solve this problem,” Locke said. “But if we can show that there is something that we can actually do, then it would be my great hope that the other Ivy League schools would do it, that the other schools in Rhode Island would do it, and if we all start having this kind of ripple effect, we could make a difference.”

Brown “is uniquely positioned to help” scholars and students, said Adam Levine, assistant professor of emergency medicine, who was chosen to join the committee because of his work in addressing humanitarian crises. “I think it’s a brilliant idea for how Brown can actually have a meaningful response,” he added.

The committee works with the Institute of International Education to find and fund scholars and students. The IIE has a program for displaced scholars worldwide called the Scholar Rescue Fund and a program for displaced Syrian university students called the Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis. Both programs match applicants with universities outside of Syria. When scholars and students are placed at universities through the SRF, the IIE contributes an award of up to $25,000, which the University is expected to match, said Marisa Quinn, chief of staff to the provost and a member of the committee.

“There are more displaced academics now than at any point in human history,” said James King, a senior research and program officer at the IIE SRF. It is very important for universities around the world to “step up and say that ‘we’re ready to support our colleagues in this difficult time,’” he said. King applauded Brown’s role in this effort, saying “Brown has been a leader in terms of its response to the Syria higher education emergency.”

Currently, one displaced scholar is hosted at Brown: Tarek  — who was the subject of a recent Herald article and whose name has been changed to protect his anonymity. Tarek came to Brown in January. While he was educated in Europe, this is his first time in the United States. He expressed immense happiness and gratitude about his current living conditions, saying, “Brown is a very nice place to be, really. I have everything. I have nothing to complain about.”

Before he found the SRF, Tarek had not considered the possibility of coming to the United States. “I was basically searching for a job in Europe,” he said, adding, “You know about the relationship between Syria and (the United States), the immigration problem, the terrorism, all these things.”

“I didn’t imagine that an American university would be welcoming,” he said.

But after being here for only a few months, he is happy to have been placed at Brown. “Here, I feel I’m lucky. I’m lucky to be placed (at) Brown because, in Europe, they don’t offer housing, the salary is very small (and) they don’t offer health insurance.” In addition to housing and health insurance, Tarek has access to Brown’s library, which he said is the most important thing for him. He added, “I have friends already — it’s been less than three months, and I have friends that call me.”

King and Locke both emphasized that the purpose of this project is to provide displaced students and scholars with the opportunity to continue their academic work. “These are academics. They do academic work, … and they are not meant to be treated as victims. They’re empowered professors,” King said about participants in the SRF.

Locke said that it is important to allow scholars and students “to be able to come back into an academic environment” where they are able to continue their scholarship. “Having these people in our communities I think makes us a richer community,” he added.

King said that SRF scholars, “as a general rule, are extremely productive on fellowships — often times because this may be the first period in a long time where they can continue their work safely and in security. So they tend to be fruitful periods for both the scholar and the host.” Tarek’s first few months at Brown certainly have been productive: He has presented a paper, finished a translation that has been published and is now in talks with his department  — which cannot be named to protect his anonymity — about teaching a course next semester.

During the past few years of war in Syria, Tarek was unable to do research. He mentioned that in summer 2015, he wanted to buy a new important book in his field, which cost approximately $25. But this was a quarter of his salary, which was cut because of the war.

Tarek is at Brown on a year-long fellowship from the IIE as a visiting professor. He will have the opportunity to apply to extend the fellowship another year, but after that, he will have to find a job without IIE funding. Though he just recently arrived in the United States, he is already thinking about his next step and is nervous that the transition to his next job might be more difficult than his transition to Brown. “I have this year, and I want to make the maximum of it. It’s crucial for my future,” he said.

King noted that the most important part of matching scholars with universities is finding “the right fit.” Quinn said that fit is “really about (scholars) being able to continue to contribute to the field, which is very much aligned with our mission. They want to come and be engaged; they don’t want to come and not have a place in the academic life of the University.”

Locke and King both noted that hosting displaced scholars and students is a difficult task. “There are budget realities. There are only so many places that we can put people. And then there’s bureaucracy,” Locke said.

There have also been cases where Brown has invited scholars, but they have been unable to get a visa or unwilling to be placed outside of the Middle East and North Africa region or Europe, Quinn said.

King said that some universities, both inside and outside the United States, consistently host more than one scholar per year through the SRF. But “there may be a bit of a learning curve in terms of hosting,” he said, adding that the University could build upon its first experience of hosting a displaced scholar to better host future scholars.

Locke emphasized that bringing displaced scholars and students to campus was only one of the many ways that the Brown administration and community are involved in helping those affected by the Syria crisis. He said that faculty members work on humanitarian projects, do research about them and educate the community about the crisis, among other contributions.

“The committee does not claim to do everything that Brown University is responsible for. It’s meant to be supplemental. It’s meant to contribute whatever the administration can, on top of all of the various efforts that students and faculty (members) undertake, and are expected to undertake,” said Ben Gladstone ’18, who was selected to serve on the committee because he founded the Brown University Coalition for Syria.

Levine added, “This is a first step forward, and I really hope that people do continue this work and also expand it in other ways.”


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