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Iraqi scholars fleeing violence find new homes at American universities

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Prof. Donny George is teaching three classes this semester at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, including a seminar on the history of the Iraqi conflict that forced his family to flee their home in Baghdad. (Courtesy of SUNY-Stony Brook)

In four months, Donny George went from long odds to Long Island.

After more than 30 years of building a career in Baghdad as Iraq's top archaeologist, George saw his chances for a promising future fade as the government there grew indifferent to the specter of violence targeted at academics. Called a collaborator in written threats dropped off on his doorstep, he retired from the Iraq Museum and the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, packed a few suitcases and shipped his family off to Damascus, Syria.

Now, he's teaching three days a week at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where two of his children take college classes and a third attends a local high school. Instead of fighting to defend his country's cultural heritage from looters and insurgents, George worries about writing fair midterm exams and conveying the richness of Mesopotamian history to a group of 40 sleepy students.

“For my wife and younger son, it's strange and different to have such complete piece of mind and security,” said George, 56. “It is a completely new life for all of us.”

George is among the Iraqis who have beat the deadly game being played out on the campuses of Mesopotamia by moving to a university in the Unites States. The traveling scholars must go back to school for the first time--their one-year appointments encompass all the perks and pains of academic, including unwieldy teaching loads and uncertain futures.

Many rely on non-governmental organizations such as the Scholar Rescue Fund that provide a link between endangered foreign academics and American colleges by providing crucial support and funding.

“The universities in Baghdad are closed,” said Abdul Sattar Jawad, who left Iraq in 2003 and is planning to teach at Harvard this fall. “It is not even the militias doing the killing. Campus security are murderers themselves.”

Jawad is currently in his second semester at Duke University. In a recent Washington Post op-ed he claimed that 250 scholars have been killed in Iraq since 2003.

“The most dangerous place in Iraq is not the mosque, the marketplace or the military checkpoint, but the classroom,” he wrote.

Now, he said, things are even worse. And few Iraqis of any occupation are finding political sanctuary in the United States.

The U.S. has allowed only 466 Iraqis to immigrate under refugee status since the war began, and all legal movement has been stifled by a recent shift in passport policy that rendered all but the most recent version of Iraqi passports useless, according to testimony of State department officials at a January hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. (New passports are obtained only by waiting in a lengthy, dangerous line outside a single Baghdad office.)

Groups like the Scholar Rescue Fund, a branch of the International Institute of Education founded in 2002, aim to provide a path through the maze of federal immigration bureaucracy. The fund has aided 20 Iraqi scholars since the conflict began. Six of them arrived in America with a $10,000 annual fellowship and a teaching position.

“Nobody really wants to leave,” said Allan Goodman, the institute's president and CEO. “These are senior scholars who are well-established in their country, and they've stayed behind as long as they could [because] they felt an obligation to their country. But the escalating violence and specific targeting has caused more people in that situation to make that decision.”

For many, the car bombing of Mustansiriya University in January that killed more than 70 people provided the final push. Applications to the Scholar Rescue Fund skyrocketed, and another wave followed a second suicide attack in late February that killed 40 more students and professors.

“We're getting 40 cases a week just from Iraq, which is absurd,” Goodman said.

Once here, academics have to find a new niche in an unfamiliar system. Jawad, the former dean of Mustansiriya University and editor of an English-language weekly newspaper, was a media critic and Iraq's foremost authority on T.S. Eliot and William Shakespeare. He has taught only Arabic works at Duke, though Harvard allowed him to craft a niche for comparative literature.

Tahir Al-Bakaa, Iraq's former minister of higher education, spent a year at Harvard through its Scholars at Risk program without teaching a class of his own, spread between lecturing in courses on developing countries and writing about the university system he had just left behind. Now at Suffolk University in nearby Boston, he consults to the Arabic language program at a nearby high school and travels around the country to speak about the state of Iraqi education.

“When you take away a country's scientists, you are targeting Iraq itself,” he said during a speech at Harvard last year.

Aside from teaching two classes on archeology and advising his final PhD candidate back in Baghdad via e-mail, George leads a seminar on the history of the occupation in Iraq.

“It's not something I was intending to do, but they wanted someone who knew the Iraqi side firsthand,” he said.

In line for a permanent position at Stony Brook, George is working to make sure he never has to apply for help again. In a bare classroom on a snowy Tuesday morning in February, he filled up a chalkboard with expert sketches of pictographs and cuneiform script, condensing thousands of years of history into accessible nuggets.

An Assyrian Christian, George can trace his ancestry back to those neolithic villages. But far from home and unlikely to return any time soon, he is now in the strange position of looking for the most familiar cultural elements in an utterly new land.

“We just met an Assyrian priest here on Long Island,” George said, “and he's going to pick us up bring us to church on Sunday.”

The church was in the Westchester city of Yonkers, a three-hour round-trip voyage from Stony Brook by car.

“That's fine,” George said. “We don't mind going a long way for something so important.”

E-mail: baf2113@columbia.edu