Cornell provides refuge for scholars under threat

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Joe Schwartz

Azat Gündoğan

In 2014, sociologist Azat Gündoğan and his wife, historian Nilay Ozok-Gündoğan, left tenure-track jobs in the United States to return to their native Turkey. They hoped to pursue their research on Turkish history and society, and to raise their infant daughter in their homeland.

It was a turbulent time in Turkey. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was intensifying its crackdown on critics, as well as on minority Kurds. Azat and Nilay are Kurds, and although they were not activists, they were uneasy.

In January 2016, they joined more than 2,000 academics in signing a petition calling for an end to Turkish state violence against the Kurds. It was known as the “Academics for Peace” petition, but Erdogan labeled it terrorist propaganda and accused the signatories of treason.

The Gündoğans’ lives changed in an instant.

“Our pictures and addresses were published on the internet,” Azat says. “Lots of our colleagues lost their jobs or had their passports taken. Some had their houses raided. Others were detained.”

The couple began to see signs that they were being watched. Their Gmail accounts switched from English to Turkish – most likely, Azat says, because government agents couldn’t read English: “We could feel the circle tightening around us.”

One day, he and Nilay met with fellow signatories in the southeastern city of Mardin, where they taught. What would they do if the police came for them? What would they do if they were ordered to retract their support for the petition?

Then they went grocery shopping with their baby. “It was so strange,” Azat recalls. “The ‘everydayness’ of it.”

That afternoon their lawyer called. They all knew the phone was tapped, so they spoke indirectly. If you’ve ever thought you might like to travel abroad, the lawyer said, this would be a very good time.

“It was a now-or-never type of decision,” Azat says. “We packed overnight. We couldn’t sleep. We were terrified.”

The next day they were in an Airbnb in a strange European city (Azat prefers not to say which), trying to figure out what to do next.

Luckily, they were part of an international academic community that stretched as far as Ithaca.

Mostafa Minawi, assistant professor of history at Cornell, suggested that they apply for help through the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund. Nilay had a champion in Kent Schull, an associate professor of history at Binghamton University, where both Nilay and Azat received their Ph.D.s.

The Scholar Rescue Fund approved their applications, and Minawi and Schull worked their networks. Azat was offered a visiting scholar position at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell, and Nilay was named a visiting professor at Binghamton.

Laura Spitz, Cornell’s vice provost for international affairs, agreed to support Azat with funds from the Global Cornell Initiative. “Academically and morally,” she says, “it was the right thing to do.”

Cornell works with several organizations that protect academics threatened by violence or persecution. Alumnus Thomas A. Russo, J.D./MBA ’69, helped found the Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF) as a member of the Institute of International Education’s executive committee in 2002. Since then, the fund has helped arrange temporary appointments for more than 700 scholars at more than 370 institutions.

Azat Gündoğan was the third SRF scholar to come to Cornell. In 2004, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences supported a plant breeder fleeing political violence in Côte D’Ivoire, and from 2014 to 2016, the School of Integrative Plant Sciences hosted a researcher from Syria.

Spitz has committed to bringing a new scholar to campus in 2017-18, and Cornell Law School’s Clarke Initiative for Law and Development in the Middle East and North Africa is working to arrange another.

Cornell is also part of the Scholars at Risk network, which includes more than 500 institutions. In 2009, the Africana Studies and Research Center welcomed Sudanese sociolinguist and human rights activist Ushari Khalil as a visiting scholar.

Locally, the university supports Ithaca City of Asylum, which is based at the Center for Transformative Action, a nonprofit Cornell affiliate. The program provides persecuted writers with housing and work opportunities in Ithaca. Kate Klein, a writer and editor for Cornell’s office of alumni affairs and development, is board chair.

The current writer is Raza Rumi, a prominent Pakistani journalist who narrowly escaped assassination in 2014. He has been teaching at Ithaca College and the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs.

Spitz says the scholars and their families are not the only ones who gain from university support. “First, these are incredibly smart folks, and we benefit from having them in our academic community,” she says. “Second, they bring with them crucial information about where they come from. And third, they enrich us as human beings.”

Spitz says current U.S. travel policies make it harder for threatened scholars to find refuge in the United States. Of the nearly 50 academics currently seeking placement through Scholars at Risk, 14 live in countries from which travel is severely restricted.

Another 14 are from Turkey, where the situation for scholars has worsened since a failed coup in July 2016. According to the watchdog site turkeypurge.com, more than 8,500 academics have been dismissed by government decree since the coup attempt.

Azat Gündoğan says he would love to return home, but he knows it will not happen soon. He left Cornell in early August to become a visiting professor at Florida State University, where Nilay has taken a tenure-track position.

Gündoğan says he made good progress at Cornell on a book about the formation of satellite cities in the Istanbul area. He says he is especially grateful to his colleagues at the Einaudi Center and the Cornell Institute for European Studies, which provided him with an office, administrative help and other, less tangible, support.

“People were extremely sensitive to what we were going through,” he says. “They were so open. I will never forget that.”

As for other lessons from the past year? “It gives you new perspective on how suddenly you can become a refugee,” he says. “It doesn’t matter who you are. It can happen to anyone. And it happened to us.”

Jonathan Miller is associate director for communications for the Einaudi Center.