UPDATED: December 14, 2016, at 4:41 a.m.
Staring at the computer screen, Mahmoud Hariri watched men guided only by the light of their smartphones salvage bodies from the rubbled remains of buildings. This attack occurred in Hariri’s hometown of eastern Aleppo, Syria, though he viewed the rescue efforts from the safety of Harvard’s campus.
Prior to his arrival at Harvard, Hariri provided trauma care as a surgeon in eastern Aleppo hospitals and trained junior physicians at a medical school he founded with colleagues two years ago. As political tensions and fighting in Syria escalated, Hariri’s family stayed in neighboring Turkey while he traveled back and forth between the two countries.
This fall, Hariri joined thousands of others in moving to Harvard for the beginning of the semester—but while many were coming back from internships and summer vacations, Hariri and four other scholars were escaping wars and oppressive regimes on a 10-month fellowship through the Harvard Scholars at Risk program.
Nearing its 15th year of operation, Harvard’s Scholars at Risk program—the largest chapter within a broader network—hosts scholars every year who are fleeing “dangerous conditions” and intends to provide a safe haven for scholars facing potential harm, which “may be related to the scholar’s work, but it may also be a consequence of the scholar’s ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or political opinions,” according to the program’s website.
While the fellowship only lasts 10 months, those involved with the program aim to make their time as productive as possible and set up scholars for success after Harvard.
A PROGRAM’S FOUNDING
On Human Rights Day in 1997, a NPR program on persecuted intellectuals prompted then-University of Chicago professor Katie Trumpener to email the university’s president and provost about the school’s relationship with academic freedom.
In the email, she discussed “the singularly important role” Jewish refugees from Germany played in the intellectual development of the University of Chicago in the 30s and 40s. She challenged the university’s leadership to consider establishing a fellowship for professors under contemporary oppressive regimes to find a place of “intellectual refuge and sanctuary,” or “a first place to catch their breath and think what to do next?”
After receiving a polite, but uninterested, response, Trumpener shared her ideas with then-director of the school’s Human Rights Program, Jacqueline Bhabha. Bhabha and her team embraced the idea and brought it to fruition.
In 1999, the Human Rights Program of the University of Chicago founded Scholars at Risk. With a MacArthur start-up grant, Bhabha, who currently co-chairs Harvard’s SAR program, hired lawyer and human rights activist Robert Quinn as the first program director for the international umbrella organization. He still serves in that position today.
Quinn said though the network has grown significantly in recent years, “at the same time, we have seen conditions worsen in a number of countries, so we are still racing to keep up.” Quinn noted that “there’s a huge well of goodwill in the higher education sector to see [Scholars at Risk] work.”
Harvard English professor Stephen Greenblatt, who served on the Executive Council of the Modern Language Association with Trumpener, said he learned of the program from her, and her motivations to create the program deeply resonated with him.
Greenblatt, current co-chair of the Harvard SAR, immediately set to work and spoke to then-University President Lawrence H. Summers about bringing the initiative to Harvard.
“It is exactly the kind of thing that a great university like Harvard needs to do more of—use our intellectual community to help advance intellectual progress and moral rightness,” Summers said, reflecting on the decision to introduce the program to Harvard.
HOLDING ONTO HOPE
Scrolling through the Facebook profile of a young man, Hariri brooded over the atrocities faced by his countrymen who are not able to flee.
“This guy, my friend, has been killed today morning. To be honest, I’m afraid when I’m opening the Facebook that I will find sad news,” he said.
From witnessing the death of a patient on his operating table during an attack on his hospital, to hearing about the death of the last pediatrician in Eastern Aleppo, uncertainty and loss are normal in Hariri’s life.
“They are losing their hope day by day,” Hariri said of his colleagues. “I feel myself guilty, leaving them and being here, just living safe with my family. In the meantime, there are people who are suffering and risking their lives.”
Following Hariri’s visit to Los Angeles two years ago to speak at an American College of Surgeons conference, he received an email from a medical student who had attended. The email informed him about Harvard SAR, and presented a nomination offer.
After deliberating with friends, Hariri decided the opportunity could be useful for advancing his work in Syria. He applied and was accepted.
Hariri’s story is harrowing, but it is not uncommon among the scholars accepted by Harvard for participation in the program. Other fellows this year hail from Cuba, Ethiopia, Iran, and Nigeria, with a sixth arriving in February, according to Harvard’s SAR program director Jane Unrue.
The seventh fellowship was awarded to Ethiopian scholar Bekele Gerba, who is currently incarcerated. This marks the first year in which the program has awarded a scholarship to someone in prison.
Past years’ scholars have included a Cambodian documentary filmmaker, a Uyghur historian, an Iraqi Shakespeare scholar, a Sri Lankan mathematician, and a Russian journalist.
Beekan Erena, one of last year’s fellows, escaped persecution by the Ethiopian government for challenging their treatment of the Oromo people.
A scholar, an educator, and an author, Erena has worked to liberate the Oromo people, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, from government oppression. In doing so, he became a target.
In June of 2014, while Erena was working with other scholars to develop curricula for the Oromia Education Bureau, government agents stormed in, took their photos, and demanded they stop working on the project. A few days later, Erena was forced into a car and driven to the notorious Maekelawi prison, where many Oromo activists are tortured.
This was but one of six incidents that year in which Erena was stalked, arrested, and beaten by government agents.
A year after the initial threats from the government, his doctoral program funding was discontinued because of his “inappropriate” research agenda.
Following his academic suspension, he received an email from Harvard Law student Kulani Jalata, an American student of Oromo descent, who had heard of his plight. She wanted to nominate Erena for Harvard SAR. Erena was initially skeptical. He said, “I looked it up and I was amazed. Is that from enemy, maybe from the government to cheat me?”
Erena took a chance, and with Jalata’s help, applied to the program and was accepted. He benefitted from the period of calm surrounding President Barack Obama’s official visit to Ethiopia in 2015 and was able to flee the country.
LIFE AT HARVARD
“People have come from situations of intimidation, extortion, torture, persecution, but they’re for the most part, not coming with an edge of bitterness but with a sense of hope,” Greenblatt said. This certainly holds true for Hariri and Erena.
While at Harvard, fellows often research and raise awareness about the issues plaguing their countries.
Unrue explained that protecting these scholars is the top priority, and that every case is unique. “We work with them to make as many connections for them as we can,” she said.
Hariri, hosted by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, has dedicated his year to analyzing hospital data and disease prevalence during the war and continuing to build out his medical school.
From producing online courses for Syrian medical students and educators to acquiring support materials and funding for the school, Hariri likens himself to an octopus in “connecting people from different places and trying to put all of these resources in one basket.” In a consortium across universities including Yale and Albany, he facilitates collaboration on initiatives related to the medical school project.
Hariri said he works more than 20 hours per day, often waking up at 3 a.m. because of the time difference between Cambridge and Turkey and Syria. “Believe me, there is no time for rest,” he said.
Hosted by the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Erena’s research focused on ''The Oromo Student Protest Movement: Demands for Justice and Democracy in the Face of Ethiopian Government.” In addition to teaching an Oromo language class at Harvard, he also wrote 152 poems in English to try to improve his command of the language. He said he was excited to come to Harvard given its wealth of academic resources.
“When I came here, I saw 17 of my books in the library. I don’t know how they came to Harvard, but I appreciate Harvard because it is globally collecting every nation’s book. I was amazed,” Erena said. He was happy to find himself in “an ocean of knowledge.”
With government-controlled media, there are many untold stories in Ethiopia. Erena hopes to raise awareness of these stories through his academic work, creative writing, and thousands of social media followers.
But for some fellows, rest and recovery are needed after escaping traumatic circumstances. From receiving legal aid and psychological treatment to forming academic networks, Greenblatt hopes scholars have “a kind of world that is giving them some support and that they’re not just in a dark hole.”
While some SAR fellows openly interact with the Harvard affiliates, others cannot be identified in the same way out of safety concerns. Unrue said that being called a scholar at risk can be “a problematic label—maybe like dissident.”
As she does with many fellows seeking academic or research positions following their fellowship, Unrue is now helping Erena apply to doctoral programs in the United States. Erena currently teaches literature courses on revolution and survival at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, with the broader goal of eventually returning to Ethiopia and creating social change through education and his writing.
“My dream is to be voice for the African people wherever I am. If my country is appropriate for intellectuals, my wish is to go back and teach the generation, especially to work on their minds,” Erena said.
BEYOND THE PROGRAM
Harvard’s Scholars at Risk chapter relies on funding from a variety of sources, but with an unstable stream of funding, sustainability is a key concern of the program—even as administrators voice their continued belief in the importance of the program.
In a recent email soliciting nominations for next year’s class of Scholars at Risk, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 wrote, “The support of American universities for scholars facing persecution because of their beliefs, scholarship, or identities has always been critically important. With threats to academic freedom rising across the globe, this support has only grown in importance.”
Over the past year, the Turkish government has exercised more control over educators and China’s president has sought to remove dissenting opinion in universities.
“Critical thinking is an activity absolutely supported by universities, or should be supported, but at times, that makes them targets for attack. Our professional networks should do what we can to help people,” Trumpener said.
Greenblatt said that, while the funding may fluctuate, Harvard SAR will continue to push for support.
“The University has been very generous and serious about this for now quite a few years, but the university budgets are under pressure. We know that,” Greenblatt said. “I’ve had and expect to have many conversations [with administrators] but it’s sometimes disheartening to realize that you have to go back so often to make the appeal and say look this is the situation we’re in as human beings, these are the people who are making claims on us.”
Upperclassman residential Houses also started hosting fellows two years ago, which has significantly decreased housing costs and provided an outlet for scholars interested in engaging with the undergraduate population, according to Unrue.
This past October, comedian Jimmy Kimmel joined sports personality Bill Simmons in an benefit show for the Harvard program.
“Jimmy has been a great angel for our program over the years,” Unrue said.
Bhabha said she is grateful for the generosity of supporters outside of and within the university, but internal funding remains a challenge.
“We have had gifts, and we have had donations, but I think when you’re at Harvard, people expect the wealthy university to support something like this,” she said.
From working on fundraising initiatives to helping scholars rebuild their lives, fellows and colleagues view Unrue as the undersung heroine of the program.
“She’s a force of nature, and she’s also a force for good,” Greenblatt said.
—Staff writer Sarah Wu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SarahWuhooo.
This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections:
CORRECTIONS: December 14, 2016
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Mahmoud Hariri established a consortium across multiple universities including Brigman to collaborate on initiatives related to the medical school project. In fact, he is a moderator of the project and Brigman is not part of the consortium.