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AMMAN - Munther Naman Baker’s profession put him in danger every day.
Many of his colleagues and friends were killed, sometimes in front of his own eyes, while death threats containing bullets would fill his mailbox.
Baker was a professor of electrical engineering at Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, and that very fact made him a target of violence and intimidation.
To make matters worse, his home town of Tikrit gave away his religious and tribal affiliation and made him a target in the ever-growing sectarian strife tearing Baghdad, which soon crept into his university.
As his wife was a foreigner, she became a de facto prisoner in their own home for fear of being kidnapped.
Baker’s daily commute to work was plagued with shootings and military checkpoints, as bullets, explosions, inspections and electricity cuts prevented him from carrying out research or meeting with other professors.
Despite his reluctance to leave his country in its “hour of need”, Baker had no other option.
“How can I turn my back on my academic history, my students and my homeland? In the end I had no choice,” Baker told The Jordan Times.
Now teaching at Philadelphia University, he is anxious to return home when the situation permits in order to pass on his decades of knowledge to future generations of Iraqis.
Baker is but one of 107 Iraqi scholars who have been rescued and relocated by the Institute of International Education’s (IIE) Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF), part of the organisation’s efforts to protect threatened academics across the globe.
Under the fund’s Iraq activities, established researchers and academics apply to receive a two-year fellowship teaching or researching at host academic institutions abroad.
SRF and the host institutions work together to fund the scholars’ relocation and living expenses.
In a little over a year, the Fund is more than halfway to its goal of 200 Iraqi scholars in two years, with several Jordanian institutions hosting the threatened academics.
HRH Princess Ghida Talal, who serves as board member of the Fund, sees the scholars’ safety not only as a humanitarian issue, but a cause that reverberates at every level of Arab society.
“These scholars systematically are being killed for committing the crime of continuing to teach and research and educate,” she told attendees during a meeting on the fund’s progress on Monday evening.
“As Arabs we have a duty to protect our threatened scholars. As Jordanians and Iraqis we hold a responsibility towards them as they in turn hold the key to the education of our children and future generations,” Princess Ghida noted, urging citizens and governments across the region to facilitate the fund’s work.
IIE had been hosting academics on an ad hoc basis since Russia’s Bolshevik revolution of 1919, recognising that scholars are the first to be targeted in times of war and crisis.
The institute’s actions were formalised when the Scholar Rescue Fund was established in 2002 with a $50 million endowment, in an attempt to finance ongoing operations to aid academics across the world.
Due to the alarming situation in Iraq, the Fund established a separate entity to rescue academics from the increasing daily dangers.
In order to prevent brain drain, the fund places scholars within the region so that students across the Arab world can benefit from their knowledge.
The fund also encourages scholars to teach classes in their home countries through video-learning in order to pave the way for their eventual return.
“We don’t want to remove the best minds from the region, only relocate them within the region until the environment improves on the ground and they can return home without the threat of violence and persecution,” SRF Chairman and IIE Vice-Chairman Henry Jarecki told The Jordan Times, adding that the Kingdom has been instrumental in the organisation’s activities.
In addition to the Kingdom, Iraqi scholars are being hosted in Qatar, Bahrain, Egypt, the UAE and Morocco.
Of the current “rescued” Iraqi scholars, 53 are experts in the physical sciences, 23 in agriculture and medical sciences, while 10 are well-versed in arts and humanities, Jarecki said.
According to SRF Executive Director Jim Miller, nine institutions in the Kingdom are currently hosting Iraqi scholars, including Philadelphia University, the University of Jordan, Balqa University, Princess Sumaya University for Technology, Petra University, Al Isra University, the Jordan University of Science and Technology, the United Nations University and Muta University.
The Kingdom is hosting 26 academics, a number he expects will grow as the fund works to meet its goal.
“With the overwhelming support of the government, the Royal family and the academic community, we have no doubt that Jordan will help us meet our goal,” he told The Jordan Times.
According to Miller, the fund selects candidates based on academic calibre, the threat they face in their home country, and their potential value to host institutions.
Though they must make painful decisions, SRF’s activities have been welcomed warmly by both scholars at risk and host institutions.
“The scholars have played an invaluable role at their host institutions as they have so much to contribute,” he said, stressing that the fund does not advocate what academics should do after their two-year fellowship ends.
Baker, meanwhile, already has his sights set on helping his war-torn country.
Through the help of the fund, he is going to perform a two-year research fellowship at the Arab Science and Technology Foundation in the UAE and will use his position to reach out to Iraqi students at home and abroad.
“I have been plagued by guilt every minute since I left,” he said.
“Iraq is a land of hope and glory, and I am anxious to return to restore it to that status,” he said.
As the fund’s work continues, many more voices of wisdom will be preserved for Iraq’s future.
The SRF encourages donations from organisations, businesses and private citizens alike. Those interested in learning more about the fund can visit their website at scholarrescuefund.org