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Connecticut College hosts 'scholars in exile' for retreat

New London — When academics around the world find themselves displaced from their home countries amid war and personal threats of violence, the Institute of International Education's Scholar Rescue Fund steps in to help place them in fellowships at universities elsewhere.

While grateful and relieved, the scholars can find themselves feeling isolated and anxious about the date when their fellowship is up, wondering, "What's next?"

Last September, The New University in Exile Consortium formed to address these issues and now has 15 member institutions. One is Connecticut College, which has been holding a retreat this week for "scholars in exile."

The consortium was founded by Dr. Arien Mack and is housed at The New School in New York, where she is a professor of psychology. Mack is a 1951 graduate of Conn College.

Her passion for helping persecuted academics came after Kian Tajbakhsh, a former colleague at The New School, moved to Iran and was imprisoned, starting in 2007. Tajbakhsh was permitted to leave Iran on Jan. 16, 2016, Implementation Day of the Iran nuclear deal.

He is now a professor at Columbia University, one of the consortium's members, and was at the retreat.

About 10 years ago, Mack found grant money to host an endangered scholar at The New School. But she thought it wasn't enough. She wanted to do more.

Exiled scholars are "people who have been ripped out of their homeland, who have been ripped out of their careers, who have lost their belonging, who have lost their sense of identity, who are in a safe place now," Mack said, and "while they were safe, they were suffering."

She formed the consortium to create a community among exiled scholars, and each member institution must meet two conditions: Host an endangered scholar, and appoint someone to serve as a liaison to the consortium.

At Conn College, that liaison is Amy Dooling, associate dean of global initiatives. She explained that the school joined the Scholar Rescue Fund program in 2014, as the Syrian refugee crisis was coming to a head.

"I think the campus, faculty, students, the administration, really started thinking, 'How can Connecticut College respond to this particular crisis?'" she said. The first scholar the college hosted was Ahmad Alachkar, an economics professor who fled Syria.

'You can never exile the intellect and the heart of a person'

The scholar Conn College has been hosting since January 2018 is Binalakshmi "Bina" Nepram, who came alone to the United States after being threatened in her native India.

Nepram explained that the northeastern state of Manipur has been under martial law since 1958, something India tries to hide from both its own people and the rest of the world. As a young girl, she wondered why there was so much violence, and why there were so many troops in the region.

She found that doing research "allowed me to stay afloat in a war zone," and in 2007, she set up the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network. It helped ensure that women had food on the table and their kids were going to school.

But "the violence is so much on both sides, you can be killed for raising the question, so we had to be very careful," she said. Many gun traffickers and smugglers in her region were becoming politicians, and when she started filing litigation on behalf of people whose family members had been killed, she was threatened.

She was lucky to be at a friend's wedding in May 2017 when people stopped by her house. Her mother warned Nepram that people were looking for her, and Nepram fled. She hasn't been back since.

Nepram first landed in New York, but she didn't become aware of the Scholar Rescue Fund until five months after her arrival. She applied and was placed at Conn College.

She teaches a course called Women, War and Peace while working with team members back in Manipur to document human rights violations with photographs and descriptions.

"You can exile a person, but you can never exile the intellect and the heart of a person, ever," said Nepram, who is speaking about her book and her experiences at Groton Public Library on Aug. 20 and The Public Library of New London on Aug. 24.

Next steps

Nepram said of The New University in Exile Consortium, "It has been a really, really beautiful experience, where we were able to connect with other scholars from around the world, in a manner in which no book could have taught me."

Still, she lives in a state of "constant uncertainty." Come January, her fellowship at Conn College will be up, and Nepram has no idea where she'll go or what she'll do then.

She has found that the United States is "a country where you've got to know people, and we don't know people yet." So she and the other scholars in exile are urging universities to introduce them to people and connect them to mentors.

This was one topic of discussion on Wednesday, the second day of the three-day retreat, as was the idea of putting the scholars' experiences into a book.

Mack said that Cem Özatalay, a Turkish sociology professor who is the current scholar in exile at The New School, would like program participants to share their stories at other universities.

Mack said other topics at the retreat were, "How can we make more people aware of us? How can we increase the number of universities that join us?"

On Wednesday, the retreat also featured the optional activities of a trip to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and a conversation with Chris George, executive director of the New Haven-based Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services.

George spoke about how IRIS has expanded its work beyond refugee resettlement to help those seeking asylum — the difference being that asylum-seekers already are in the U.S. — because it now has far fewer refugees to assist due to restrictions from the Trump administration.

"Once the members of this consortium have used up a two- or three-year fellowship at some institution, then what?" Mack questioned. "The academic job market is lousy."

George noted that IRIS has placed refugees not only in dishwashing and factory jobs, but in jobs at Yale and other universities. He also spoke about options for legal aid and IRIS' efforts to educate Americans about refugees.

Along with India and Turkey, the native countries of the 15 scholars at the participating institutions include Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Syria and Cambodia.


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