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Harvard provides temporary refuge for persecuted scholars

Program offers academics who face trouble at home support for a year

Scholars at Risk took in Tararith Kho of Cambodia.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Scholars at Risk took in Tararith Kho of Cambodia.

CAMBRIDGE — Tararith Kho survived the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. As a child in rural Cambodia, he huddled in caves to avoid the firefights that claimed his father’s life. He has spent most of his adulthood under an authoritarian regime that hinders his ability to publish his poems and short stories, or get together with even a handful of other writers.

“When we meet, police kick us out,’’ Rith, as he is called, said in the spartan office where he has found a refuge from repression - at least temporarily.

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Rith is a fellow with Scholars at Risk, an international program with a small branch at Harvard University, which offers a year of support to writers, scientists, researchers, and political figures who face persecution in their home countries. In recent years, Harvard has hosted, among others, an Iranian novelist whose works have been banned from publication; a historian and former legislator from Kyrgyzstan who escaped two assassination attempts; and a mathematician from Sri Lanka forced into hiding because of his human rights activism.

“Academics in the United States sit in this protected world,’’ said Jacqueline Bhabha, a lecturer at Harvard Law School and the university adviser on human rights education who cofounded the Harvard chapter of the program. “We never think about our colleagues who can’t do the same things we are doing because of where they live.’’

Rith’s career path epitomizes the uphill battle faced by an intellectual in a war-torn land. He was born in 1974 in an impoverished area of Cambodia, on the border with Thailand, where the Khmer Rouge had a stronghold. His father died fighting Khmer militants in 1975. Rith had to leave his home village to get a secondary education, and do odd jobs in the capital, Phnom Penh, before earning a scholarship that allowed him to get a college degree. He earned a master’s degree in 2004, but his poems - which address repression, poverty, and such issues as deforestation - were getting him in trouble with a regime that brooked little dissent.

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“The dictator fears everything, including poetry that is not positive about the government and the development of the state,’’ Rith said. “If we do not support this we cannot publish.’’

Rith came to the United States in August 2010 with his wife and two children on a writing fellowship at Brown University. Last fall, he was chosen as a Scholar at Risk fellow at Harvard for the current academic year. He writes poems, essays, and stories in Khmer. He has started a small foundation that provides housing, food, books, and computers for 30 students from his home province to get a higher education in Phnom Penh.

Rith’s fellowship ends in June, and he is trying to find a teaching position so that he and his family do not have to return to Cambodia. “If it were safe I would go back,’’ Rith said. “I don’t want to die, I want to work.’’

Scholars at Risk has its headquarters at New York University and includes 274 colleges and universities in 30 countries. Fellows generally have a temporary visa that allows them to stay in the country until their fellowship ends. Bhabha said that she and her colleagues try to help find the scholars places to continue their work, but can offer no guarantees.

Sometimes, when the scholars return home, they face persecution anew. Bhabha told of Mesfin Wolde Mariam, an agricultural economics professor from Ethiopia who ran afoul of the regime for linking the famine of the 1980s to government policies. He spent a year between 2002 and 2003 at Harvard researching the man-made causes of famine, but when he returned to Ethiopia, he was arrested and imprisoned.

Another former Scholar at Risk is a Sri Lankan math professor who has been critical of the Sinhalese regime and the Tamil Tigers, the main opponents in a civil war that lasted three decades. During his yearlong fellowship at Harvard between 2004 and 2005, Bhabha said, he reveled in the ability to jog along the Charles River, openly collaborate with other math professors, and attend classical music concerts. The program does not publicize his name because he still faces a threat. When he returned to Sri Lanka, he had to go back underground.

Baktybek Beshimov, who was a Scholars at Risk fellow in 2010 to 2011, has no intention of returning to Kyrgyzstan. A historian and former university president who was often pilloried as a US spy for his support of liberal education, Beshimov became the target of deadlier foes when he began investigating, as a member of the country’s parliament, the ties between government officials, the Russian military, and the international drug trade. He fled the country after escaping a second assassination attempt in 2009.

Since coming to the United States that year, Beshimov has been a visiting scholar at Harvard and a fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is writing a book about the competition for influence in Central Asia among China, Russia, and the United States.

“Without Scholars at Risk, to integrate into the American academic world would have been very, very difficult,’’ said Beshimov, who is now a visiting professor at Suffolk University. “We’re not heroes, we are normal people who found themselves such difficult places and want to live normally.’’

The program recently lost funding from two foundations that had supported it, and the support Scholars at Risk gets from the Harvard provost’s office allows it to pay for only one scholar a year, Bhabha said.

“Ideally of course a rich institution like Harvard should be able to support a worthy and inspiring initiative like SAR, which is so in tune with the institution’s values and mission,’’ Bhabha said, adding that Scholars at Risk had been encouraged to raise funds on its own.

Harvard has hosted about two dozen fellows since 2002, Bhabha said. The identities of some are kept secret.

Iranian writer Shahriar Mandanipour, whose fellowship ended in 2009, knows he cannot go home. “I was told, ‘Don’t come back, you will be arrested,’ ’’ he said. Mandanipour, whose novel, “Censoring an Iranian Love Story,’’ came out in 2009, has a teaching position at Brown. He said other Iranian scholars in the United States do not talk to him because they might get in trouble.

“It’s so bitter, but that’s the reality,’’ he said.

David Filipov can be reached at dfilipov@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidfilipov.
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