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UCI Celebrates Its Work With Scholars at Risk

By Eliza Partika

UCI celebrated its membership in Scholars at Risk (SAR), an organization dedicated to supporting persecuted scholars worldwide, at Humanities Gateway on Oct. 20. SAR is an organization composed of over 400 higher education institutions and non-governmental organizations from 35 countries. It is dedicated to protecting persecuted scholars and creating advocacy and advising programs to help them find temporary and sometimes permanent positions in the United States and Europe, until they can safely return to their home country. SAR also monitors attacks and creates statistics of the number of yearly attacks on and censorship of academic freedom.

   President of UCI’s Hearts of Mercy and Dalai Lama Scholar Iman Siddiqi spoke about the Refugee Students Scholarship Program, which will give student refugees, asylum seekers and asylees the opportunity to fund a higher education.

“Asylum seekers don’t qualify for any federal aid, and for refugees and asylees, available federal aid is declining. So by giving these students scholarships we are not only giving them the chance to complete their higher education but we are also investing in the post conflict development of war-torn countries,” Siddiqi told attendees.

The Refugee Students Scholarship Program is the first scholarship program for displaced students in the UC system, and the first student-led scholarship for displaced students in the country. Siddiqi and her colleagues at Hearts of Mercy will be holding their inaugural fundraising banquet for the scholarship on Nov. 16 in Pacific Ballroom D at UCI’s Student Center.

  Jane O. Newman, professor of comparative literature and UCI’s  SAR campus liaison, looks forward to UCI’s further involvement with Scholars at Risk. Newman is working with the Office of the Provost on a UCI  program designed to host a scholar at risk; UCI hopes to host its first scholar in fall 2018.

Newman is also working with faculty across the campus to start a SAR Student Advocacy Seminar program, that will include courses for credit in the 2018-19 academic year. Each student advocacy seminar  will be led by faculty who will be in contact with SAR to sponsor a scholar. Once the scholar has been approved, the group will begin research into topics such as the trends of academic censorship in the scholar’s home country, the particular case of the scholar him- or herself, and  the U.S. representatives for relations with the scholar’s home country. Newman said that in each seminar, “the research will vary depending on the case, the students’ interests, and their skills and talents in doing advocacy work.”

  UCI was one of the first campuses in the UC system to join SAR; UC Riverside has also just become a SAR member. With faculty colleagues at other UC campuses, Newman helped bring eight out of ten UC campuses on board with the SAR network, and is working to make all ten UC campuses part of SAR by the end of the year.

The hosting of scholars at UCI will be  part of a three-year pilot project at UCI. Newman hopes that UCI and other universities in the UC system will become a model for other public universities in the United States by beginning their involvement with SAR.

  Following a lunch provided by UCI’s “Conversation Kitchen” program and music by Los Angeles-based musicians Gabriel Lavin, Miguel Carillo, and Janie Cowan, distinguished professor of comparative literature at UCI, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, held a keynote address in which he spoke about what it means to be a  “hunted scholar” whose ideas live on as “fugitive ideas,” literally on the run with the scholar who created them, constantly changing and adapting.

“As long as one is not brought down,” Ngugi said, “one can generate creative outputs that thwart the hunter, ideas that may come to impact the world in big and small ways.”

He praised the SAR network for giving refuge to those “fugitive ideas” and giving a “home to hope.”

  Amal Alachkar, a member of UCI’s SAR Advisory Board and a member of UCI’s department of pharmacology, spoke of her experiences leaving her students in Syria due to false incriminations and death threats and her quest to find an initiative that would help her students from her position here in the United States.

“Safety became a luxury for me,” she said.

Alachkar did find comfort in knowing that she could give a voice to scholars not as lucky as she was to have found that safety.

   “You can never be sure about the consequences of what you do, but if what you are doing is right, then no one can take that from you,” she said.