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The dilemna of Solidarity and exile

The project Focus on scholars forced into exile yesterday and today (RESTRICA) started when, in the company of Nicolas Offenstadt, I was looking over an Urbex near the Polish border. He was tracking the memorial traces of a lost country, accompanied by the photographer Pierre-Jérôme Adjedj. PAUSE had just started in that freezing month of January.

Eighteen months previously, Thierry Mandon, appointed Secretary of State for Higher Education and Research, had convinced me to join his team. As soon as I started, in August 2015, archaeologist Alain Schnapp alerted me to the urgent need to help archaeologists in the Iraqi-Syrian zone. Islamic State had just executed the head of the Antiquities Department, Khaled al-Assad, in Palmyra. Our colleagues found asylum more easily in Germany, thanks to the proactive stance of the institutions there, while French bodies struggled to integrate them even though they had been trained there.

Exile in the transparency of the present

From then on, a tireless multi-voice quest began in response to this emergency and many others. It is this swathe of human relations that constitutes the horizon of my portrait where I have chosen to include the game of Memory that my colleagues created with their photos and that they gave me when I left my post in Berlin in 2010. To borrow a figure from the sociologist Howard Becker, PAUSE can be understood as a network of cooperation of individuals and organizations that make (a) world by the very fact of their activities. Since some names will be missing in such a group portrait, let us cite them by their function: the minister meeting young migrant students, an incredible principal private office secretary turning our essays into the necessary bureaucratic shape for funding, secretaries preparing unusual files, trainees overflowing with enthusiasm, patrons, etc. But there were also around thirty of us meeting every week on the subject of ‘refugee students and academics’ in the premises on the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève: representatives of partner institutions (CNRS, ANR, CROUS, ENIC NARIC, CPU, etc.), central administrations, and associations (Resome); joined by colleagues already involved in their establishments: Liora Israel (EHESS), who also accepted a mission to supervise the design, Sophie Wauquier (Paris 8), Mathieu Schneider (Strasbourg), etc.

It also took the courage of Alain Prochiantz and Edith Heard to open the doors of the Collège de France when so many others were closing theirs. Finally, any reforming machinery presupposes fiercely committed dreamers, but their ideas would remain in vain without the efficiency and brilliance of implementers such as Laura Lohéac, its executive director. She has since been joined by new blood in the shape of Amaryllis Quezada, for example, the daughter of a Chilean refugee. 

Exiled researchers, so many stories

During the period of PAUSE’s creation, I was surprised to see how little was known about the history of welcoming our colleagues in danger, over and beyond the archetypal model of the European migrants who left for the United States during the Second World War. I myself am steeped in this founding myth – my training in philosophy at the Sorbonne launched me in the footsteps of the exiles of the Vienna Circle. But as a doctoral student at Sciences Po, I then worked on other exiles of men and women whose biographies form the basis of German culture and its theatre, my passion. I had the privilege of being supervised by Professor Pierre Hassner, a Romanian Jew who had fled to France; and when I was living in Berlin, I witnessed a Europe marked by dissent. Later, in Montevideo, I met prisoners of the dictatorship who had fled to France, such as Ricardo Ehrlich, biochemist, mayor of Montevideo, then minister. Not all stories of exile are glorious. One of my students, who in turn became a teacher, Nadine Machikou, whispers to me many tales of African dreams that have failed once they have crossed the Mediterranean.

Legitimation of solidarity

The destruction of the world heritage makes more impact in the news than the situation of colleagues in danger in these areas. Today, do we know how Syrian archaeologists continue to produce knowledge far from their objects and their land? They were so invisible that, in 2015 and 2016, reports had to be produced to identify them with a view to hosting them. Participating in the creation of a program presupposes that we can make a convincing case as to its legitimacy: were there really researchers in danger wishing to come to France? The hosting of 220 people in three years has given us proof that there are.

Our series of portraits helps to make our colleagues visible in a world from which they are slowly disappearing. They are victims of a twofold injustice. They no longer have a post or a passport; they have lost friends and relatives, their house, or all of their possessions. Solidarity is necessary to enable them to escape dangers and guarantee their academic freedom, or to demand their release when they are prisoners. In doing so, they become exiles to us even though they seek only to remain our equals. They ask to work and not to be assisted. How can I think of myself as ‘hosting’ them when they are our fellow human beings, simply surviving at the mercy of precarious jobs here and there? They are not outcasts, they are ‘newcomers’ (Hannah Arendt). The limits to our solidarity are imposed on us by the tension in our academic employment markets. This is a caveat that Aslı Vatansever quite correctly never fails to remind me of. She was the first to be photographed in Berlin.

On the other side of the mirror of exile

The photographic apparatus is based on a co-creation since each subject brings elements of his or her scholarly life. Past and present then merge indiscriminately in the image. The shot, taken through a hidden mirror in front of this apparatus reflects a momentary, not frozen, situation. Portraits of the academic hosts were made so as to get away from the exotic gaze. But the symmetry remains virtual. These images show wounds that we, as hosts, have never experienced – as revealed in the portrait of a young Syrian woman in front of her destroyed house in Aleppo or that of a colleague from Turkey who swam to freedom, holding all his papers in a plastic bag. They are both smiling, and they give us a lesson in courage and hope. They left, they returned, they are pariahs, they teach us that we all have active roles in this freedom to think, act and exercise our profession: ‘Our defeats prove nothing, except that we are too few in the fight against infamy, and we expect the spectators at least to show some shame’ (Bertolt Brecht).