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Hyde Parkers work to resettle academic refugees

Andrea Holliday | Published on 12/7/2022

Just a few days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022 Faith Hillis, a University of Chicago Professor of Modern Russian History, opened an email that struck a note of desperation. A fellow history professor in Russia needed to expatriate with her family, and fast.

It wasn’t the only such email Hillis had received. When she spoke with the Herald last week, she had counted communications from some 500 anxious academics eager to exit either Ukraine or Russia. Many of the Russians had protested the actions of their government and now faced consequences: job loss, or (in severe cases) threats of imprisonment.

For Hillis, the email was the beginning of a months-long endeavor. It resulted in the early October arrival of the Russian professor, her husband (also a professor) and three children at a Hyde Park apartment readied for them by dozens of volunteers — students, professors, friends and neighbors. Other volunteers came from the Hyde Park Refugee Project, a neighborhood group that has been resettling refugees on the South Side since 2016.

The Russian professor has accepted a year-long teaching position at the U. of C., with an option for renewal. Arriving just after the autumn quarter began, she is already teaching undergraduates about Russian history and sharing her family’s experience.

Meanwhile, several academics in other U. of C. departments were following the same path. Professor of Art History Christine Mehring learned from a colleague in the fall of 2021 that five filmmakers from Afghanistan were in hiding and seeking refuge abroad. Two were eventually resettled in France, two went to Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. As a result of efforts by Mehring and friends, the fifth member, a screenwriter who had been teaching at a university in Afghanistan, came to Hyde Park.

He arrived in the neighborhood on Monday, Dec. 5 with his wife and five children, having been offered a year-long position as a visiting scholar in the U. of C.’s Department of Cinema and Media. The family is the 14th to receive aid from the Refugee Project.

Resettled families have hailed from Syria, Senegal, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Five families from Afghanistan have been resettled in the past year or so in the wake of the collapse of that country’s government. The Russian family is the first to arrive from that region.

Only recently did the Refugee Project begin partnering with the U. of C. academic community; the two latest arrivals are the first academic refugees to be settled here.

“This is new territory for us,” said Refugee Project founder Dorothy Pytel. “Hyde Park is a perfect community to welcome scholars.”

Hillis, Mehring and the others on campus all began by talking with colleagues about how they might help these beleaguered expatriates. They soon discovered that the U. of C., at the turn of the millennium, had pulled together a global network of colleges and universities called Scholars At Risk (SAR). The network has helped resettle some 300 scholars annually since its inception in 1999. (New York University took the reins a few years later.)

The U. of C. program, which had been dormant for a number of years, was started back up again two years ago by Kathleen Cavanaugh, director of the U. of C.’s Pozen Center for Human Rights. Cavanaugh coordinates SAR activity for the whole campus alongside law professor Elise Cook.

Hillis and Mehring had never heard of SAR when they began receiving pleas for help. But once the connection was made, Cavanaugh and her team began working with the professors to assist with resettlement. Candidates were identified who seemed to be a good fit with the university, and employment offers were secured.

With the academics and the Refugee Project working in tandem, the resettlement efforts progressed rapidly. Kate Moore, the U. of C.’s Director of Global Initiatives and Strategy, worked to push the necessary paperwork through, obtaining passports and visas. Hillis and Mehring talked with colleagues and administrators to secure job offers. Staff in the Provost’s office worked to secure university funding for the new positions.

“A huge number of university staff were involved,” said Mehring.

For Hillis, getting the job offers was the easy part. Most of the work, arranging everything the arriving family would need to establish a new life in the neighborhood, was outside the realm of academia. The number of hurdles on that path was overwhelming. “I had no idea what I was signing up for!” she said with a laugh.

Mehring told a similar story. “I’m a hands-on, can-do person… but I was daunted.” This work was eased when she connected with the Refugee Project. “They had so much great advice. All the things I hadn’t even thought about.”

“Their experience is incredible,” echoed Hillis. She began talking with the Refugee Project in the spring, right after the Russian professor was offered work at the U. of C. “They walked me through all the things that were going to happen,” she said.

While the Refugee Project continued its usual fundraising on behalf of the expected guests, they coached Hillis and Mehring on how to tap their own networks for donations. Between them, the Refugee Project and SAR have raised more than $30,000 to settle the two families in apartments the Hyde Park volunteers found for them.

Hillis spent the summer collecting household items and furnishings, working from a list the Refugee Project had provided. Following their advice, she recruited volunteers to help stock the apartments, greet the new arrivals at the airport and mentor the families through all of the challenges ahead. Many Refugee Project regulars pitched in, and Hillis said she was “in awe at the time and detail and attention they put in. Grad students also did a whole lot of labor.”

She was amazed, on the day the Russian family arrived, to find that “we had more volunteers than we needed!”

According to Pytel, that’s not unusual. “Our issue is that we often need volunteers during the work day, when one can handle issues such as setting up a bank account, dealing with utilities, registering a child for school,” she said. “That’s much harder to find.”

She added that, while many volunteers are eager to put in an hour or so each week, there are key roles to be filled which require a greater time commitment: five hours a week or more. For that, they must rely on a smaller group who are retired or have flexible work schedules.

They were able to do well by the Russians, who, according to Hillis, “were really amazed by all the people who lined up to help. They had a person to enroll their kids in school, and five English tutors!”

The family also received grocery gift cards and cash. The incoming professor will be paid after the first month of work, but because the family’s credit cards were rendered useless due to severe U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia, they arrived with little money.

For Hillis, the experience has been full of surprises. “The biggest surprise, and a happy one, was the generosity of people who gave their money and time,” she said.

Mehring likewise spoke of “an outpouring of support” from academic colleagues and art collectors in her network.

“We raised a lot of money within a week,” she said. “It’s probably the most moving thing I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

Several more scholars from Ukraine or Russia have been offered work at the U. of C., but have not yet arrived. Many Ukrainian scholars have been caught in red tape, delaying their visas.

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