This research-oriented interdisciplinary seminar sought to critically examine historical as well as current perceptions and discourses about academics who, due to institutional, structural or political constraints, were forced to leave their home country and seek exile elsewhere. In contrast to well-known artists or authors, exiled academics are often at the margin of inquiries into their specific situation and self-positioning. The seminar therefore aimed at a deeper understanding of their specific situation and self-representation. Students formed three research teams and carried out their own empirical research explorations into these topics. They were advised by teacher tandems and had the opportunity to specialize in one of three focus areas:
Focus area 1: Academics and identities on the move? The role of (social) media in processes of identity construction (Co-supervisors: Prof. Dr. Özen Odağ, Touro College Berlin, and Dr. Olga Hünler, Universität Bremen)
Focus area 2: (Transnational) Networks in Exile – Topics, Discourses and Advocacy (Co-supervisors: Prof. Dr. Carola Richter, Freie Universität Berlin, and Dr. Amal El-Obeidi, Universität Bayreuth)
Focus area 3: Cities of academic exile and their translocal networks (Co-supervisors: Prof. Dr. Nadja-Christina Schneider, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and Prof. Dr. Nil Mutluer, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)
Focus Area 2
Academics on the Move: (Transnational) Networks of Academics in Exile
Due to their mobility, academics are considered important bridges for the transfer of knowledge from and into the scientific communities of the countries they work in. There are often close personal contacts and institutional affiliations that should facilitate information flows across national borders. However, involuntary mobility because of political or security reasons may hamper this transnational bridging.
Our team wanted to investigate how professional networks of scholars in exile look like and which key persons and institutions are considered to be important for their academic career. Furthermore, we wanted to find out how frequently and through which channels scholars in exile communicate with their peers.
The research team consisted of
– Heaven-Leigh Carey (Touro College Berlin)
– Mohamed Amer Fadhil (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)
– Ben Schroeder (Touro College Berlin)
– Dr. Amal El-Obeidi (Garyounis University Benghazi & University of Bayreuth)
– Prof. Dr. Carola Richter (Freie Universität Berlin)
Methodological approach: Qualitative network analysis
With a qualitative network analysis, we explored the networks of 3 different scholars in exile. They had different backgrounds with regard to their country of origin, academic discipline, and career status.
We reconstructed their particular network through a so-called ego-centric network mapping. This means that in a longish interview we asked the person to indicate institutions or individual persons who are important for their professional career. To collect them, the interviewee put the names on a list. It was not necessary to mention names, but only initials or functional characteristics were important for us (i.e., think tank, supervisor, etc.). Then we asked the person to arrange these names according to the perceived importance in an ego-centric network map and to explain in more detail the relationship to this “node” and the kind and frequency of communication (think-out-loud-technique). In order to find out more about the transnationality of the network, we distinguished in the network map three geographical areas: host country (= Germany), home country and the transnational area.
Due to the nature of the interview (face-to-face interview necessary), the selection of interview partners was limited to Berlin. Initially, we only wanted to focus on politically active scholars but realized soon that this was a too limiting category. Therefore, we aimed for including people with different backgrounds to gain a variety of possible networks.
As a result, we will present three animated network maps of the three interviewees. The names of the interviewees are all pseudonyms, the nodes have been anonymized. You will find below more general information on the respective country and the situation for scholars there as well as some background information on the interviewed scholar. Then you can explore the networks of the respective scholar by navigating through the animated map and listen to the description of the relation to the nodes.
Dr. Amal El-Obeidi and Prof. Dr. Carola Richter
In our research and interviews with our academics of interest, we uncovered striking similarities in their experiences as academics who have been displaced in various ways. Though the academics come from a variety of backgrounds, disciplines, and stages in their careers, their shared difficulties and encounters with transnational academic settings illuminate the ways academic exiles, refugees, and migrants navigate the often uncertain terrain of academia. Common themes that surfaced in our interviews included an emphasis on the importance of strong institutional ties in one’s host country and a tendency to feel as if one leads a fragmented life, split between nations and cultures. Some academics faced more distinctive experiences such as coming up against disciplinary boundaries or having to navigate a turbulent political landscape without their voices being co-opted.
Context Iran: Political developments and situation for scholars
In 1946 British and Soviet forces withdrew from Iran, allowing a period of independent development of the country. But already in 1953 Prime Minister Mohammad Mossaddegh was overthrown by a coup backed by US and UK intelligence forces and Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was re-instated from exile. In 1979, the Shah’s authoritarian rule and controversial policies led to mass demonstrations and strikes, sparking the Iranian Revolution. In April 1979 an Islamic Republic of Iran is proclaimed. A Cultural Revolution began and a period of purges of academia ensued in efforts to remove Western, non-Islamic, and leftist influences in universities. In the era of so-called reformist president Khatami in 1999 mass demonstrations in Tehran by students resulted in the arrest of more than 1,000 students. In 2009 conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s electoral victory was challenged as fraudulent, leading to large protests and a subsequent crackdown from the state, resulting in more than 30 deaths. This was called the Green movement. In 2017-18 again a series of public protests broke out across Iran in opposition to economic policies as well as the theocratic regime.
Since the Cultural Revolution period of the 1980s, academic freedom in Iran has had a troubled history. The Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution is the political body that oversees and monitors academic activities to ensure they align with the Islamic Republic’s founding values. In the 1980s and 1990s, this meant sweeping actions such as closing universities, violence on campuses, mass bans on books, and purging of thousands of students and professors. In more recent times, as recent as 2005, widespread dismissals of university faculty have occurred, along with the incarceration of students who have voiced criticism of the state and its policies. The Supreme Council supervises the selection of applicants to universities and is involved in organizing the structure of academic institutions, making it exceedingly dangerous to express dissent or hold views that might be perceived as oppositional to the regime.
Meet Ali from Iran
Ali is an academic in his 50s from Iran who has lived and worked in Berlin for three years. In Iran he studied within the field of natural sciences, eventually becoming a scholar, including a PhD, in his chosen discipline. Despite a productive career including authorship of numerous studies and several books, Ali was forced to flee Iran due to political reasons, initially landing in Copenhagen, Denmark. After a few years there, Ali made way to Germany and eventually ended up in Berlin.
When Ali first came to Germany, he didn’t know how to reassemble the career he was forced to suspend. Upon fleeing Iran, Ali’s entire professional life had to be put on hold; and in Germany, he would need to start again. Thoroughly cut off from his previous academic associations in Iran, Ali needed to effectively start from scratch to come into contact with and construct a new network. Ali was able to begin the process of rebuilding his career in Berlin after meeting and befriending a local professor who became something of a mentor to him. Rather rapidly, Ali managed to find work as a researcher at a university institute in Berlin. Although he quickly found a position, in large part due to his prior scientific capital, Ali faced initial challenges such as adapting to working in English and becoming acquainted with the German university structure. Despite the early difficulties and his nascent network’s primary reliance on a single key contact, Ali reports that the hurdles to engaging with the academic sphere relevant to his work in Berlin have largely been overcome.
A problem Ali faces is the inability in Germany to take his career in a new direction. Ali has had a passion for the social sciences since he was a student and would like to pursue a career transition, but has encountered unyielding obstacles. He wants to study and complete a PhD in his discipline of interest and has prior experience with it, but has come up against Germany’s stringent rules on prerequisites for university programs, which would require him to first complete a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree, and then finally he could pursue a PhD. The rigidity of the university degree track leaves Ali with few choices concerning his pursuit of his passion, but he continues to explore his options to find a way to realize his aspiration.
Check out Ali’s network here: (to view it best, please enable Adobe Flash or a Prezi Viewer App)
Context Syria: Political developments and situation for scholars
Syria as a nation-state was founded under the French mandate at the beginning of the 20th century. Uprisings for independence shook up the region until 1943 when the first President was elected.
In 1963 Baathist army officers seized power and in November 1970 Hafez al-Assad overthrew the Syrian president and ruled the country with an authoritarian fist for decades. After his death in 2000, al-Assad was succeeded by his second son, Bashar.
After four years of Bashar’s Regime, the US imposed economic sanctions on Syria. This was accompanied by many protests that escalated when in March 2011 security forces shot protestors. This triggered violent unrest that steadily spread nationwide over the following months. Al-Assad sent in troops to restore order at the cost of people’s lives. Until 2018, several militias established themselves in Syria, in changing alliances with international support. In mid-2014 the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) declared a „caliphate“ in parts of Syria. In the following years Russia carried out air strikes in Syria, Turkish troops crossed Syrian borders, and the US ordered series of missile attacks.
The unrest, the external intervention, the Islamic State’s threat and the regime’s oppression caused hundreds of thousands of Syrians to flee the country to Turkey, to Lebanon, or to Jordan – but also to cross the sea seeking asylum in Europe.
Academic life was highly affected by the troubled and insecure situation in Syria since 2011: universities, academics, and students have increasingly been targets of censorship, state interference and political violence from different actors. Academics were subject to intimidation, violence, disappearances, imprisonment and even torture and killings. Therefore, the war in Syria displaced at least 2,000 scholars until 2017.
Meet Tarek from Syria
Tarek is a humanities‘ student in his late 20s from northern Syria. He already started his Ph.D. at a prestigious Syrian university, when he had to pause it due to insufficient resources and problems of movement in Syria. Indeed, the troubled situation put him at a distance from his academic work. Since his studies were in limbo, and in order to escape mandatory army service, he decided to go to Turkey in 2014.
However, he was faced with a dilemma in the area in which he first stayed in Turkey: in order to find work he would need to learn Turkish, and to learn the language he was in dire need to find a job that would have helped pay the language course – a vicious circle! This situation forced him to go to Istanbul where he started teaching Arabic for Syrian students at secondary school both morning and evening sessions. This set his ambitions to pursue a Ph.D. on complete hold. His academic career could not be continued in Turkey.
By the end of 2015, he still had no job at a university and couldn’t manage to get into academia, so he decided to flee to Europe across the sea as so many did during this time. Since arriving in Germany in October 2015, he was dedicated in learning the language and finished C1 level, and also managed to get an internship at a prestigious academic institution in his subject. However, this did not give him a kick-start into academia: his first Ph.D. application to a German university was rejected. Currently, he is waiting for a reply to another application.
Check out Tarek’s network here (to view it best, please enable Adobe Flash or a Prezi Viewer App)
Context Egypt: Political developments and situation for scholars
In January 2011, activists began an uprising in protest of poverty, corruption, and the three-decades-long rule of president Hosni Mubarak – who finally stepped down in February. Although the military was still in control, the country faced an unprecedented upswing in political pluralism.
In November 2011, parliamentary elections ousted military rule and two Islamist parties, The Muslim Brotherhood and Nour Party, won a majority of seats. In addition, in June 2012 the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Morsi became Egypt’s first freely elected president. During the year after this election, the country became extremely polarized. This culminated in June 2013 when a rebellion demanded president Morsi step down. Millions of protesters gathered again in Tahrir Square. After a few days, army Chief General Sisi suspended the constitution and detained president Morsi. The military assumed control once again. Protests continued to escalate, and clashes between opposing groups, and activists and the police, became bloody and violent. Since then, Egypt has been ruled by Sisi in an authoritarian manner, outlawing and arresting activists and former politicians.
In addition, students and academics in Egypt have been subject to censorship and crackdowns. The government has taken steps to exert more control over universities, including arresting and expelling students and faculty members, as well as hand picking the deans and presidents. Between 2013 and 2016, there have been 2,138 violations of students’ rights, including 21 killings.
Meet Rana from Egypt
Rana is a scholar in her early 30s from Egypt. After earning her bachelor’s degree in her home country, she traveled to Europe to get her master’s degree. Working as a women’s rights activist in Egypt after her graduation during the early years after the uprisings, she could not stand staying in Egypt any longer after the military had taken over again in 2013 and academic, as well as political freedom in general, decreased. She looked for jobs abroad and now resides in Germany where she is finishing her PhD in the social sciences. Despite her distance, she continues to do field work in Egypt for her research and maintains essential and robust connections in her home country.
Although she is a person that could be considered a modern cosmopolite and mobile scholar, she cannot get rid of the feeling of “in-betweenness.”
Each time she travels back to Egypt, she wonders if this will be the time she isn’t able to make it in or out of the country. The looming fear of detainment is present throughout her trip, and it doesn’t end when she comes back to Germany. Indeed, she thinks of the same things even in her host country, wondering how she will be greeted at the airport as she flies in from Egypt. Even on the street removed from her work, Rana worries about her status. As someone who does not look European or speak German, she is seen as an obvious outsider.
Check out Rana’s network here: (to view it best, please enable Adobe Flash or a Prezi Viewer App)
Links for reference:
You can find the website for the Research Seminar „Academics on the Move: Notions of Exile, Re-Migration and Translocal Solidarity“ here.