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A Message From Iraq to Its Exiled Scholars: Please Consider Returning Home

September 29, 2010

Three years ago, Abed Thiab al-Ajili, Iraq's minister of higher education, approached the Institute of International Education's Scholar Rescue Fund with a desperate plea for help. The New York-based organization provides assistance for endangered scholars and academics around the world, and the situation in Iraq, in the wake of the American-led invasion and the subsequent unrest, was bleak.

"One of the earliest requests he made was if we could find him funding for TV cameras at the gates of the university to prevent people being assassinated while going into the university," said Henry G. Jarecki, chairman of the Scholar Rescue Fund. The fund has since supported 213 Iraqi academics through its Iraq Scholar Rescue Project, by providing them with fellowships and matching them with host universities in countries where they can work in safety, and sometimes, for those facing imminent peril, providing funds to allow them to travel to safety.

Dr. Jarecki led a video conference on Wednesday, with Mr. al-Ajili in Baghdad and Scholar Rescue Fund officials in New York and Washington. During the meeting, it became clear that, while the situation in Iraq remains challenging, much has changed since that appeal.

Although Iraqi academics continue to face threats and the rescue fund has received 12 requests for help since the elections in March, Mr. al-Ajili said that the security situation in his country has improved considerably.

In response to a question from Dr. Jarecki about reports of targeted killings of physicians, Mr. al-Ajili acknowledged that violence persists. "Of course there are incidents, but they are at random," he said. "They are not targeting physicians or scholars in the universities."

Mr. al-Ajili said he expected that once a government is formed in Iraq, which he predicted would happen within weeks, the security situation would continue to improve. He emphasized that, although news-media coverage tends to focus on bombings and attacks, the daily lives of most Iraqis are "normal."

In part because of the distorted coverage, the minister said, perceptions of the current situation in Iraq's universities are often inaccurate. "I have met a lot of people outside Iraq, and it seems to me they are ignorant" about issues such as the accreditation of Iraqi institutions and other basic facts, he said.

For example, Mr. al-Ajili mentioned that work has just begun on the construction of 2,000 new residences for faculty members in Baghdad, which he said are expected to be complete in two years. Such a development might persuade some displaced Iraqi academics to go back home. Jim Miller, executive director of the Scholar Rescue Fund, noted that academics who have fled Iraq often cite the fact that they no longer have homes as an impediment to their return.

Academics inside Iraq and those outside the country plan to meet in January, at a conference in Amman, Jordan. The meeting will be sponsored by the Institute of International Education, with help from the Post-War Reconstruction and Development Unit at the University of York, in England. The presidents of all of Iraq's public universities will be invited.

Some of the Iraqi scholars who have received support from the Scholar Rescue Fund over the past three years will be presenting papers focused on the development of higher education and science in Iraq, including such issues as post-traumatic stress disorder among Iraqi academics. The call for research proposals also included a "strong suggestion" that the work involve joint research with academics still in Iraq, Mr. Miller said.

The conference will be a crucial event in the fund's efforts to assist with the eventual repatriation of the Iraqi scholars it has supported who wish to return home. "We want those of our scholars who want to go back to be as educated as possible about the situation on the ground and the issues of safety and whether scholars are being targeted in some unusually precise fashion," said Dr. Jarecki. The main goal of the conference, he said, "is to get people inside and outside Iraq talking as much as possible."