Across the globe, academics and researchers face personal and professional threats from their oppressive governments or due to conflict in their home countries. Whether they are exiled or flee on their own accord, many seek refuge in other nations where they can continue their work.

Yevgenia Albats (left-center), Elisabeth N.M. Ayuk-Etang (center), and Nasiruddin Nezaami discuss the crises taking place in their home countries. (Image credit: Rod Searcey)

But once there, distance does not necessarily mean separation.

“You have so much cultural, religious, [and] mental connection to the land that you were raised in. It’s hard to disconnect from that,” said Nasiruddin Nezaami, a legal scholar from Afghanistan and a visiting professor at Stanford Law School.

Nezaami is one of six visiting scholars at Stanford who are supported by Stanford’s Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF), which offers residencies to international scholars facing threats, persecution, or severe hardship in their home countries. It is modeled after the Scholar Rescue Program offered by the Institute of International Education (IIE). For nearly a century, Stanford has partnered with IIE to bring displaced scholars to campus. Recent seed funding from the president, provost, and numerous schools, departments and programs enabled the creation of a Scholar Rescue Fund at Stanford last year, with the hope of continued support in the future.

In partnership with the fund, Stanford Global Studies hosted “Citizenship and Belonging in Times of Political Crisis,” a panel discussion with three displaced scholars to share their stories and experiences. The discussion took place Friday, May 5, at Encina Commons and was moderated by Gabriella Safran, the Eva Chernov Lokey Professor of Jewish Studies and professor of Slavic languages and literatures in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

Scholars Elisabeth N.M. Ayuk-Etang, and Nasiruddin Nezaami discuss the crises taking place in their home countries. (Image credit: Rod Searcey)

The panel discussion was part of the Stanford Global Studies Global Dialogues Series, designed to foster fresh thinking on critical global issues and develop new approaches to grapple with the complexities of our interconnected and constantly changing world.

In addition to Nezaami, the panel featured two other endangered scholars from other institutions: Yevgenia Albats, a Russian journalist and political scientist and distinguished journalist in residence at the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia at New York University, and Elisabeth N.M. Ayuk-Etang of Cameroon who is a visiting professor and IIE-SRF Fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

In her opening remarks, Professor Jisha Menon, the Fisher Family Director of Stanford Global Studies, noted the value scholars bring to their new countries and institutions.

“We can invite these brave individuals into our community at Stanford and learn from their example and courage,” she said. “Of course, this is only a beginning, and a lot more remains to be done in order for us to secure and sustain the longevity of this program.”

Global conflicts

In Russia, Albats has been a critic of Vladimir Putin’s regime and his war in Ukraine. Now in its second year, the conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and shows no signs of ending. Many Russians have protested the war and even fled across borders to avoid being sent to fight in Ukraine. Despite the turmoil, Albats said that such conflicts don’t stop Russians from identifying with their nation.

Scholar Yevgenia Albats shares her experience of living in the former Soviet Union and reflects on the Russian war in Ukraine. (Image credit: Rod Searcey)

“I’m loyal to my flag, [but] as a journalist and academic, I am part of the opposition,” Albats said.

In Cameroon, a years-long civil war has rocked the African nation, killing thousands of citizens and displacing hundreds of thousands more. Before relocating to California, Ayuk-Etang was a professor of African and feminist literature and chair of the English department at the University of Buea. As a member of the country’s English-speaking minority, and because separatists there believe state employees like her to be the enemy, she was at grave risk.

Ayuk-Etang described the violence that erupted on the streets where she was targeted. “In 2019 … I was shot in my left wrist,” she said, lifting her arm to reveal a scar. “And it destroyed this part of my hand.”

She said that many Cameroonian children have become victims of the war and described the trauma her own children experienced after their classmates were shot and killed outside of their school.

For Nezaami, who was born in the early 1990s, turmoil in his home country has been ceaseless for as long as he can remember. “There has been a continuous conflict between ethnic groups [over] who holds power in Afghanistan,” he said.

Millions have been displaced and oppressed, including some of Nezaami’s own relatives. Furthermore, in 2001, the U.S. and allied forces invaded the country to oust the Taliban. Twenty years later the U.S. withdrew troops and immediately the Taliban returned, resulting in a large-scale societal assault.

“For all those [of the] generation who were born after 2000, the Taliban were just a nightmare,” he said, adding that since the Taliban has taken over, recent surveys indicate that the majority of the population lives in poverty.

Refuge and belonging

During the Q&A portion of the event, the panelists were asked about their impressions of living in the United States. Albats, who spent much of her life living under the communist Soviet Union, said she was taken aback by the freedoms and material lifestyles available to Americans.

When scholars arrive in new countries, they bring with them significant contributions to their fields and institutions. They also find new intellectual communities and connections. But for many, the desire to return home remains strong. Ayuk-Etang and Nezaami remarked on the emotional challenge that comes with being displaced from one country and having to reside in another.

“There’s always a psychological battle [over] where you belong,” Nezaami said. “That’s a question that always keeps my mind busy.”