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OHIO offers Iraqi scholar refuge, opportunity

Scholar Rescue Fund benefits GLC
Mar 1, 2010
By Monica Chapman

The phone call rang in at 2 a.m. Iraqi time. On the line was a representative from the Institute of International Education's Scholar Rescue Fund calling to offer Dr. Salam Bash Al-Maliky an unthinkable opportunity: refuge from his war-torn homeland to pursue research abroad.

But on that evening, the heat was especially oppressive, the generator unusually loud, and the hour ungodly. And Dr. Al-Maliky, an Iraqi scholar, spared neither mercy nor volume in his knee-jerk response: ?Are you out of your mind??

From disbelief to doubt and eventually to caution, Dr. Al-Maliky?s emotions ran the gamut as the potential opportunity weighed on his heart over the next few days. And despite the impassioned nature of that initial encounter, he eventually accepted an offer through the Scholar Rescue Fund to advance his research at Ohio University in the 2009-10 academic year.

Dr. Al-Maliky currently serves as the Global Leadership Center?s Leader in Residence and an associate professor in the Department of Civil Engineering.

A broken home

Founded in 2002, the Scholar Rescue Fund provides fellowships for established scholars whose lives and work are threatened in their home countries. While most scholars approached through the SRF respond with relief and hope, it is understandable that Dr. Al-Maliky proceeded with caution, said Jim Miller, executive director of the Scholar Rescue Fund.  

?After what can be years of living in fear of threats or violence, sometimes without hope of finding a way out of the situation, doubt or disbelief seems a very natural and human response,? Miller said.

The international isolation that gripped Iraq between 1979 and 2003, during the reign of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, made the Scholar Rescue Fund?s offer difficult to fathom, said Dr. Al-Maliky. And the nation?s current state does not lend itself to trusting outside sources, he added.

?I can tell many stories, especially these days,? Dr. Al-Maliky said, when asked about the volatile situation in Iraq.

Explosions, kidnappings, murders, hangings. The unthinkable has touched Dr. Al-Maliky?s life in more ways than one.

Despite its prestigious academic reputation, Dr. Al-Maliky?s home university, Mustansiriya University, might be best known for the bombings that have ravaged its Baghdad campus in recent years.

Since 2007, according to a New York Times article dated Oct. 19, 2009, bombings at the institution have killed or maimed more than 335 students and staff members, and a 12-foot-high blast wall has been built around the campus. Many Iraqi academics, including Dr. Al-Maliky?s former dean, have been kidnapped and killed.

?Additionally, thousands of scholars ? estimations are more than 6,000 ? have fled Iraq or are internally displaced and are unable to teach, conduct research, or carry out their academic responsibilities,? said Miller, adding, ?Just this week in Baghdad, for example, two Ph.D. scholars were shot and killed."

Dr. Al-Maliky , who holds a doctorate in environmental engineering from the University of Baghdad,   has served on the faculty of Mustansiriya University since 1994. And though he highly values professionalism in the classroom, he admits to dismissing class mid-lecture to check on his children, following explosions that occasionally sound across Baghdad.

It?s this climate of fear that makes it difficult to focus on academic research, he said.
Cross-continental collaboration

Dr. Al-Maliky?s expertise encompasses industrial wastewater treatment, air pollution and nuclear radiation. At Ohio University?s GLC, he will be leading a comprehensive study of depleted uranium in Iraq.

Depleted uranium, a by-product of U.S. military actions in Iraq, is an extremely dense and weakly radioactive substance commonly used in radiation shields and defensive armour plates.  Used heavily during the Gulf War , the metal has been blamed for an increase in cancer and birth defects in the region, among other problems.

GLC students will be conducting on-line collaborative research with students from Mustansiriya University to investigate the effects and potential remedies for Iraq?s excess of depleted uranium. The students' findings will be submitted to Iraq?s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and to the Ministry of the Environment.

Though this particular study focuses on Iraq, Dr. Al-Maliky  contends that the problem reaches much farther:  ?This is not just an Iraqi problem. This depleted uranium issue is a ghost that is silently spreading to swallow all of the region.?

The environmental implications of the study are most exciting to senior journalism major Katherine Bercik, who is enrolled in Dr. Al-Maliky?s GLC class. But the wide scope of the topic makes it hard to predict where the study will lead.

?With the GLC, we are always changing gears as the project develops,? said Bercik. ?There is a lot that can be done with this project. I think it?s whatever we make it.?

Common ground

Dr. Al-Maliky?s ?experiment,? as he calls his stay in the U.S., is about far more than uranium research. It?s also an opportunity to break through stereotypes, he said.
?The thought is that Americans are either arrogant or hostile or, on the other side, cold or indifferent. The amazing thing is that I found very much in common?The American personality, in general, is not that different from the Iraqi,? he said, adding, ?(Iraqis) are far away from being extremists. We are people who want to live in peace.?

Dr. Al-Maliky hopes these sorts of social discoveries ? ?that Americans are neither monsters nor angels? ? will impact the outlook of his wife and sons, who accompanied Dr. Al-Maliky to Athens. He also hopes to use the experience to foster better cultural understanding among his students ? his current students at Ohio University, as well as future students in Iraq.
?The Middle East is kind of foggy for Americans, in general,? said GLC Director Greg Emery.  ?And I?m pretty sure that for nearly all of our students, this might be the first time in their university experience where they?re going to take a critical look at the Middle East and, in particular, a critical look at Iraq, which is part of recent American history.?
Bercik calls the opportunity enlightening. Unprecedented, adds Emery. But above all, Dr. Al-Maliky asserts, this collaboration must be meaningful.

?At the end of the day, we will find that we are doing something good for all,? he said.


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Published: Mar 1, 2010 5:27 PM

Salam Bash Al-Maliky

GLC Leader in Residence Salam Bash Al-Maliky

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