Rescued from Syria, scholar-in-residence has stories to tell

Scholar-in-residence Ahmad Alachkar
Scholar-in-residence Ahmad Alachkar

When Ahmad Alachkar describes his hasty December 2012 departure from war-torn Syria, it's an edge-of-your-seat ride reminiscent of the Hollywood thriller "Argo," full of will-they-or-won't-they-make-it moments. There is gunfire along the road to the airport in Aleppo, a shakedown from the taxi driver and a positively cinematic encounter with Syrian army soldiers patrolling the airport.

"I'm a professor, I'm from Rastan, and I'm leaving the country," he says, explaining that the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad targets intellectuals as well as people from Alachkar's hometown, one of the first areas to rise up against the regime, for retribution. "I could easily be killed at the airport."

So when a soldier in the airport recognized him and said to another, "This is Professor Dr. Ahmad. Take care of him," Alachkar froze. "That could mean two different things," he recounts.

Fortunately for Alachkar, the soldier's intention was to help him and his wife, Chaza Badawi, so they were left free to stay in the bitterly cold airport with no electricity, waiting on a plane that was hours late and reported to have been shot at in flight. The drama didn't stop once they boarded — the pilots warned passengers not to turn on their overhead lights so the plane couldn't easily be spotted from the ground. It was only when they reached the Mediterranean Sea that the lights were turned on.

A week after they left, the Aleppo airport was shut down.

Alachkar tells this story from his office at Connecticut College, a sunny but sparsely furnished room on the third floor of Winthrop House. He has been a scholar-in-residence since late January, the beneficiary of the Institute of International Education's (IIE) Scholar Rescue Fund, which provides yearlong fellowships to imperiled professors, researchers and public intellectuals. The IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund has provided 48 fellowships to Syrian scholars since the beginning of the civil war and has assisted a total of 525 individuals since its inception in 2002.

The IIE requires that a host college or university match the stipend it provides to the scholar, and Connecticut College was able to do so thanks to a generous endowment from trustee emerita Ann Werner Johnson '68, whose husband, Thomas, is chair of the IIE Board of Trustees. The endowment will enable Connecticut College to host a scholar each year.

A rescued scholar receives use of an office and computer, and, although it’s not required, can elect to teach courses on campus. Alachkar, a longtime professor who was the dean of the faculty of economics at the University of Aleppo, will teach a course on economies of the Middle East in Fall 2014, and he will continue with his research, which focuses on population and development in developing countries. Naturally, the Syrian native hopes to use that research to help his own country.

"I am trying to find a way to change policies and subsidies for the poor in Syria," he said.

It's this concern for the people of his homeland that kept him in Aleppo well after the civil war had expanded into the city. His nine children, all living outside Syria, pleaded with him to leave, even before the war began, but his ties to the country — including three older sisters still living there — were too strong. And they became stronger once the war started.

"I saw so many homeless people sleeping on the pavement, in houses without windows and doors, in mosques and churches and at the university," he said. "They had no homes, no food. I wanted to stay among them and try to help.

"My children had another idea. They said, 'You can do more to help if you are outside of Syria. If you are killed, you cannot help anybody.'"

And so, after enduring hardships that include the Syrian Army’s destruction of a home he kept in Rastan, and witnessing its unimaginable brutality — shootings, bombings, missile attacks on the university, and the murders and arrests of many close relatives and friends — he realized his children were right. He and Badawi packed only a few items and left their Aleppo apartment, thinking they’d return in a few months.

Visa issues and red tape dictated where they could live, and after stops in Egypt and France, Alachkar and his wife now find themselves in different countries. She is in Saudi Arabia with members of her family, the upshot of a prescient decision to keep her Saudi visa. He was able to obtain a U.S. visa because one of his daughters is a U.S. citizen. (Alachkar was widowed several years ago and his wife is the children's stepmother.) Another daughter is also an IIE scholar, hosted at the University of California, Irvine. Four of his children hold Ph.D.'s: one is an engineering professor, one is a professor of pediatric medicine and two are pharmaceutical researchers. His other children are all specialized physicians.

Despite his obvious sadness at being separated from his wife, his friends and his country, Alachkar's affable nature manages to shine through, and his colleagues believe he has already advanced the College’s mission to encourage and prepare students to be respectable global citizens.

"Ahmad is a very social person and is going out into the community quite a lot, attending a 'Dinner with 12 Strangers' event, faculty meetings and receptions, and lectures by other faculty," said Candace Howes, the Barbara Hogate Ferrin '43 Professor of Economics and chair of the economics department. "He eats in Harris every day, has gone to the Arabic table at Knowlton, and is getting to know students. I think because he is so present, people are getting to know him and are able to have conversations with him about Syria. I know from faculty and staff that his presence and extreme accessibility has made them think much more deeply about Syria and the Middle East in general and the role of the U.S."

Adds Abigail Van Slyck, the Dayton Professor of Art History and associate dean of the faculty, "The Scholar Rescue program is a wonderful thing for providing a safe haven for scholars like Ahmad Alachkar. But it is also something that impacts everyone who comes into contact with him. I doubt that anyone can read media reports about Syria in the same way once they've encountered Ahmad."

"I am very happy to be safe here, to have a place to work, with good people who are very friendly, respectful and sympathetic to the people of Syria," he said. "And I am grateful to the administration of Connecticut College. But I very much miss my wife, my house, my sisters, friends and colleagues and my country. There are many good people there, and I hope there will be freedom there soon."

When that happens, Ahmad Alachkar will no doubt return to his homeland and use his experiences —both academic and applied— to improve the lives of his fellow Syrians.

April 4, 2014