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New Endowment Rescues Threatened Scholars - 2004-09-23

The Institute of International Education (IIE) has been rescuing scholars in peril since its founding 85 years ago. A new $10 million gift is boosting the educational group's effort to protect threatened scholars.

The mission of the Scholar Rescue Fund is a simple one, according to IIE President Allan Goodman.

"The idea is to save their lives," he says. "Many of them are threatened with assassination or long periods of imprisonment and torture. The idea is to find these scholars, help them to relocate in another country, it does not have to be in the United States, so that they can continue to teach and earn their living as academics."

The institute rescued its first scholars in 1920 when it helped relocate from a refugee camp Russian scholars displaced by the Bolshevik Revolution. IIE continued raising money and finding academic positions for scholars whenever the occasion arose. But two years ago, the organization decided to set up a permanent Scholar Rescue Fund and began to raise an endowment for it.

Now financier Henry Kaufman, a long time supporter and member of the board of the Institute for International Education, has donated $10 million to the program. Mr. Kaufman is a great believer in the power of education and he also understands firsthand what it means to be at risk.

"Without education, of course, we really have no future," Mr. Kaufman notes. "And without our young people, there also is no future. Perhaps the most subjective reason for my doing this is I came here to the United States as a 10 year-old back in 1937. My family and I were, therefore, not the victims of the Holocaust. In the 1930s the Institute of International Education brought over and saved about 300 scholars from being the victims of the Holocaust. I, of course, therefore, have had strong ties to this kind of an effort."

Mr. Kaufman's gift is the largest ever given to the institute, which primarily designs and administers programs that encourage international educational exchanges. Mr. Kaufman, who holds a doctoral degree in banking and finance, has contributed a considerable amount of his personal fortune to education, endowing chairs at both Columbia and New York universities. He wants his gift to put the Scholar Rescue program on a permanent footing.

"We have made that effort at the Institute intermittently, but I thought it was time to put some structure and to create some permanence because today we have politically endangered scholars all over the world," he adds. "Losing scholars is to lose something is very precious to human kind."

IIE President Allan Goodman says the group is just beginning to understand the breadth of the need across the globe.

"In the first 18 months of our operations, we have rescued over 50 scholars, [with] 500 pending applications," he explains. "If you would have told me in the 21st century with all that happened in the last century, that we would be facing this level of threats to scholars, I would have to tell I would have been surprised."

Mr. Goodman says the 500 applicants represent some 90 nations. Many of the applicants learn about the fund through the Internet and through human rights groups. In some cases, governments have asked IIE to help relocate scholars who have been targeted by internal terrorist groups.

This Iranian political scientist, now teaching at a university in the northeastern United States, learned about the Rescue Fund from friends.

"We contacted directly, but it was through friends. We did not know anything about the organization," she says.

The scholar, who is afraid to give her name, says the political situation in Iran does not allow scholars to pursue their work independently.

"More and more because criticism of the government means that you cannot work in the structure of the political situation," she adds. So you have to be very impartial, expressing yourself in a very neutral way. You cannot criticize whatever is happening in Iran's government or society."

A network of more than 90 colleges and universities in the United States help the fund place scholars at risk in temporary academic positions. Jacqueline Moudeina, a political activist from Chad, is now in a research position at Columbia University in New York. She came here after recuperating in a hospital from wounds suffered when someone threw a grenade at her during a demonstration protesting election fraud.

The fund rescued Habib Rahiab, a human rights activist in Afghanistan in March.

"The reason that I left my country was that after we released our report, the name of the report was Killing You is a Very Easy Thing, this was by Human Rights Watch, in July last year, my house was assaulted by irresponsible gang men. They attacked my house. Following that incident, President Rabbani, the former President of Afghanistan, in an open letter Hamid Karzai, the current president of the transitional government of Afghanistan, asked for my prosecution. So it was very difficult for me to stay longer in my country," said Mr. Rahiab.

Mr. Rehiab is currently a research fellow at Harvard University's School of Law in Boston, but he hopes to someday return home to help rebuild his country.

"Definitely, I would like to go back and contribute to my own field and do something for my country. There is no doubt of that issue," he says

In addition to protecting the scholars, supporters hope the network will call attention to the constraints and persecution scholars and independent thinkers continue to face across the globe.