Pope Francis travelled recently to the Greek island of Lesbos, where thousands of Syrian refugees are housed in detention centers as they await updates on their asylum applications. The Pope called on people around the world to, “...heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.” Beyond the basic human needs of food, water, and shelter, there are also unprecedented educational needs, which IIE has played an active role in addressing. Today, the Syria Consortium is answering this call by encouraging universities to provide scholarships to qualified Syrian students. The IIE Scholar Rescue Fund is offering funding to host institutions that can offer temporary academic positions for Syrian scholars to continue their teaching and research until it’s safe to return home. This work not only has short-term impact by finding placements for many qualified Syrian academics, as well as hundreds of other threatened scholars around the world, but it also has long-term benefits for training teachers and future leaders who will go on to create the educational infrastructure for Syria’s future. As much as the work of supporting refugees is future oriented, it is also a vital part of IIE’s history.
Since its inception, IIE has sought out ways to support students and scholars in need when their home countries were in times of war or internal discord. The first efforts to support refugees began in 1921, when the Institute secured funding and found places for displaced Russian students and scholars to work, following the Bolshevik Revolution. In his 1943 memoir, Stephen Duggan, the first president of IIE, called the Russian Student Fund “…one of the finest activities in which the Institute ever engaged.”
One of IIE’s most notable efforts to rescue threatened scholars was The Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German (later Foreign) Scholars (1933-1944), which offered temporary academic homes in colleges and universities in the United States to European scholars who were persecuted by the Nazis. This impact of this work was twofold. It provided space for the brightest minds in Europe to cultivate their ideas and continue their research in American colleges and universities. It also saved the lives of scholars who may otherwise have been taken to concentration camps because of their beliefs. The Committee also worked to secure donations from philanthropists so that American universities did not have to spend additional funds in order to take in these scholars. Some of these rescued scholars went on to found the New School for Social Research and others led groundbreaking research efforts in scientific and other key fields, including eminent Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, influential theologian Paul Tillich, and Nobel Prize winning biochemist Otto Meyerhof .
In the late 1950s, IIE played a similar role in supporting Hungarian refugees. On October 23, 1956 a group of students initiated peaceful protests calling for political and educational reforms of the authoritarian communist government, but these protests led to an armed uprising. Ultimately, Soviet troops overpowered the revolt and established a pro-Soviet government, which led to an exodus of nearly 2% of the country’s population. By this time, IIE had established itself as a premier international educational exchange organization and it utilized its ability to liaise with the U.S. federal government and institutions of higher education to mobilize human and financial resources to provide refuge for scholars and students. Of the nearly 30,000 Hungarian refugees who made it to the United States, there were nearly 1,000 college-aged students, many of whom had been part of the initial protests. Together with organizations like World University Services and Catholic Relief Services, IIE helped find placement for many of the students who qualified for higher education. This work demonstrated the Institute’s impact and ability to serve as a central convening agency facilitating collaboration among multiple institutions to find placement for refugees.
In the last quarter of the twentieth century, the South African Education Program (SAEP) served Black South Africans who failed to receive adequate education under apartheid from 1979 to 1992. Beginning in1980, IIE put together a consortium of U.S. universities, led by Harvard University President Derek Bok, to host hundreds of talented Black South African undergraduates, providing these disenfranchised students with professional experiences and widened horizons. Many went back into leadership positions in South Africa’s post-apartheid society.
All of these efforts speak to the persistence of IIE’s response to the educational needs of students and scholars in peril. IIE’s ongoing Syria Consortium and current timely response to the refugee crisis in Syria shows that the Pope’s contemporary call for a humane response has been heard over the years. In addition to the Institute’s role, there have been numerous other important partners in this work, including institutes of higher education, many humanitarian philanthropists, and international partners. Collectively, these groups have made a difference and will need to continue to work together to serve the needs of refugee scholars and students for years to come.