Baghdad once reigned as the intellectual center of the world. In the 2000s, it became the center of an unprecedented academic emergency. International organizations estimated that more than 3,000 professors fled Iraq starting in 2003. Thousands more were threatened or trapped in the country, unable to teach, conduct research, or carry out their academic responsibilities.
In 2006, when security concerns in Iraq reached unprecedented levels, IIE-SRF began receiving hundreds of requests for assistance from threatened Iraqi professors and scientists at higher education institutions across the country. It became clear that the scope and scale of the Iraqi crisis required special attention. With generous funding from the private and public sectors – most notably the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Richard Lounsbery Foundation – IIE-SRF responded by launching the Iraq Scholar Rescue Project. From 2007 to 2014, this project supported over 280 Iraqi scholars to temporarily resume their teaching and research at higher education institutions outside Iraq.
Iraq Scholar Rescue Project fellows represented a wide array of the academic world, coming from a variety of different disciplines.
Iraq Project fellows found safe haven in a number of different countries, most significantly the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Through a special relationship formed between the Jordanian royal family and IIE, Jordan played a major role in the rescue of threatened Iraqi scholars.
During their fellowships at host institutions around the world, most of the scholars supported by IIE-SRF’s Iraq Scholar Rescue Project maintained their academic connections to Iraqi students and colleagues. To broaden these connections, the program established the Iraq Scholar Lecture Series, which recorded academic lectures by Iraqi scholars in the diaspora for distribution and presentation—in DVD format or via live feed—at universities throughout Iraq. Over 300 much-needed lectures in fields such as pediatrics, environmental biotechnology, and molecular genetics were made available to thousands of faculty and students at more than 20 Iraqi public and private universities. Some lectures have been incorporated into official course curricula. University presidents and deans alike have remarked on the impact the program has had by giving its students exposure to the country’s best academic minds no matter their geographic location.
In addition to their fellowship funding, Iraqi fellows were eligible to apply for a range of benefits to help them adjust to their host countries, enhance their scientific skills and expand their publication records, and to prepare them for their ongoing work beyond the fellowship term. For example, funding was available to Iraqi scholars seeking professional skills training, language training, membership in academic associations, and assistance with publishing costs. Partnerships with local training programs in their host countries enhanced these benefits by reducing costs and tailoring trainings to the particular needs of Iraqi scholars.
To help address the needs of Iraqi scholars before, during, and after their fellowships, IIE-SRF organized seven training workshops between 2009 and 2013. Initially held in Amman, Jordan, these workshops expanded into training conferences held in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region. Bringing together participants from Iraqi universities and education ministries, fellowship recipients, and other international education experts, the conferences covered topics ranging from education quality assurance and accreditation of universities to building institutional linkages and modern teaching methodologies.
More than 40% of the scholars support by IIE-SRF’s Iraq Scholar Rescue Project were able to return to Iraq. Although the Project formally ended in 2014, Iraqi scholars continue to be served by IIE-SRF amidst the country’s changing dynamics, including through the ongoing Iraq Distance Learning Initiative.