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Fleeing from home to a refuge in science

The Philipp Schwartz Initiative supports researchers at risk

Their own countries are riven by war, their freedom of research is curtailed or they are subject to persecution: in many parts of the world, researchers are under threat and have to flee their homes. The Philipp Schwartz Initiative helps refugee researchers to find their feet at German universities and research institutions.

“If anyone criticised the government or posted information about protests on social media, they suddenly disappeared or were arrested by the police and held indefinitely,” reports Jeff Wilkesman from Venezuela. Until August 2017, he and his wife Liliana Kurz, both biochemists, were professors at the Universidad de Carabobo in Valencia, Venezuela. A normal research day at university had long become a thing of the past; due to the political situation both were under enormous pressure. When Kurz witnessed the military storming the university grounds, she posted photos on social media. Her family was then threatened directly, she reports. With the help of Philipp Schwartz Fellowships, the couple were able to move to Mannheim in 2017.

PROFESSOR DR JEFF WILKESMAN

In August 2017, the biochemist became a Philipp Schwarz Fellow at Hochschule Mannheim University of Applied Sciences.

Across the world, researchers repeatedly demonstrate for the freedom of science. These movements show that independent research is not something that can be taken for granted. Politicians, large corporations and other ruling powers often have their own opportunistic agendas. “In Turkey, too, you can observe severe limitations on academic freedom,” comments Yudit Namer. Following the failure of the attempted coup in July 2016, Gediz Üniversitesi in Izmir, where the psychologist was an assistant professor, had to shut down. “Overnight, I couldn’t continue with my research or supervise my students,” Namer explains.

DR YUDIT NAMER

In October 2016, the psychologist joined Bielefeld University as a Philipp Schwartz Fellow and now holds a permanent position.

On the strength of a Philipp Schwartz Fellowship, Bielefeld University could offer Namer the prospect of a more positive future. She has been working there since October 2016, is back in contact with her students in Turkey and is thus able to continue with at least some of the projects she thought were lost. As part of the collaborative project YOURHEALTH in the School of Public Health, she heads the sub-project YOURCARE which aims to examine the portfolio of psychological health provision for young refugees in Germany and minimise access barriers. Namer now holds a permanent position at the institute and is not short of ideas for other research projects, too.

PHILIPP SCHWARTZ INITIATIVE

The initiative was jointly launched by the Humboldt Foundation and the Federal Foreign Office. Since 2016, it has been granting funding to German universities and research institutions to enable them to finance refugee researchers for a period of two years. Originally envisaged as a fixed-term initiative, it was established permanently by the Federal Foreign Office in 2018. Up to 50 fellowships can be awarded annually. Apart from supporting individuals, the initiative also aims to organise a network for exchange on the situation of researchers at risk. In this context, the Humboldt Foundation cooperates with a number of organisations including the Scholars at Risk Network, the Scholar Rescue Fund and the Council for At-Risk Academics. It is supported by various partners, such as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

At the Institute of Biological Process Engineering at Mannheim University of Applied Sciences, Wilkesman
has become part of a major research project in cooperation with the International Water Aid Organization. The
team is working on emergency drinking water cases that help turn contaminated water into hygienically safe
drinking water in disaster areas. Wilkesman feels at home in Mannheim. “The sound of the local dialect is music to my ears!” he says. When the fellowship comes to an end, he hopes that he and his wife will be able to continue working in Germany and that his children will be able to keep on going to school safely. He hopes for major changes in Venezuela: the country needs stability and security. “Basically,” says Wilkesman, “everything needs to be improved.”

Philipp Schwartz

The initiative is named after Philipp Schwartz, a professor of pathology who, like many other Jewish academics, had to flee Germany in 1933 in order to avoid arrest. In Zurich he established the “Notgemeinschaft deutscher Wissenschaftler im Ausland” (Emergency Society of German Scientists and Scholars Abroad). He later moved to Turkey where he initially managed to arrange positions for 30 German professors at Istanbul University – by the end of the Second World War, some 300 academics had followed.

Yudit Namer’s hopes not only apply to her old home, but also her new one: “Nowadays, academic freedom isnot a given. My hope is that the role of science in today’s society will be reassessed worldwide and that access to science will be understood as a basic right – and not as a privilege for the few.”

Asking for your opinion!

Share your experience and assessment of freedom of expression and science worldwide. What needs to be done to protect scientists, artists, students and human rights defenders at risk?

March 2020

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