Science in Exile podcast: Alfred Babo shares his story of being an at-risk and refugee social scientist

The latest episode of the Science in Exile podcast series explores why scholars may be targeted in periods of civil unrest and how higher education suffers in particular.

Map close-up

ISC Presents: Science in Exile is a series of podcasts featuring interviews with refugee and displaced scientists who share their science, their stories of displacement and their hopes for the future.

In the latest episode of Science in Exile we hear from Alfred Babo, a social scientist whose research focuses on social change, child labour and development, immigration and social conflict, and post-conflict societies. Alfred shares his experience of working as a university lecturer in Côte d’Ivoire when the country fell into a civil war, and later seeking refuge in Ghana, Togo and eventually in the United States, where he’s now settled and working in the Sociology and Anthropolicy department of Fairfield University. 

The series has been developed as a contribution to the ‘Science in Exile‘ initiative, which is run as a collaboration between the International Science Council (ISC), The World Academy of Sciences (UNESCO-TWAS) and the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP).

Listen now

Transcript

Alfred: All public universities in a country, in a developing country, were closed. I don’t know how long we’ll be paying for that, but you can think about generation of students who are really way behind because they couldn’t complete the degrees, they couldn’t go to school, and most of them couldn’t do anything. And, of course, for faculty it was also a disaster because that means no more research, no research programmes, no laboratory work, nothing. 

Husam: I am your host Husam Ibrahim and this is the Science in Exile podcast. In this series, we get an insight into the lives of scientists who are in exile, and we discuss how the past, present and future of science can be preserved across borders. This podcast is part of an ongoing refugee and displaced scientists initiative run by Science International, a joint project by the World Academy of Sciences, The InterAcademy Partnership and the International Science Council. 

On today’s episode we have Professor Alfred Babo, a social scientist from Côte d’Ivoire, or otherwise known as Ivory Coast, advocating and working towards sustainable socioeconomic and social-political development. Alfred is a member of the Scholars at Risk Network Board and the Co-founder of ‘Share the Platform’ – an initiative that works with refugees on programme design, policy-making, and action.  

Following Côte d’Ivoire’s disputed 2010 elections, Alfred’s country fell into a civil war. In 2011, after facing death threats, he was forced to flee the country with his family.  Alfred currently resides in the United States working as a professor at the University of Massachusetts.  

Now, Alfred tells us about the conflicts he faced in Côte d’Ivoire. 

Alfred: So, I think we have two important phases or steps. The first one was in 2002, when the rebellion broke out and, at that time, only universities and professors who were in the region controlled by rebels were targeted. 

As you might know, most conflicts are ethnic-based, and those who were not from the ethnicity of the rebel leaders were targeted and of course, even if they were not targeted, most of them feared for their life and they fled the area. The university and the campus were seized by the rebels, so it became a military camp for rebels. 

The president at that time did his best to try to resume, to keep alive this institution. In the capital we started having classes at any auditorium that we can find. For example, cinemas, theatres, where we can have 500 seats, 300-seats, every place to teach. This was really difficult but we were able to keep that for almost eight years, from 2002 to 2010. But when the war broke out again in 2010 – 2011, of course it became worse for faculty and universities in Abidjan because the war really happened this time in the capital, in Abidjan. This time, universities were really destroyed. Some of the dormitories were used for, again, military operations. It was really the collapse of the higher education institution in Côte d’Ivoire. 

The president decided to close the universities for one academic year. I think it was even for more than one year, was probably one year and half. So, this was a disaster for research, for teaching, for students, for faculty. All public universities in a country, in a developing country, were closed. I don’t know how long we’ll be paying for that, but you can think about generation of students who are really way behind because they couldn’t complete the degrees, they couldn’t go to school, and most of them couldn’t do anything. And, of course, for faculty it was also a disaster because that means no more research, no research programmes, no laboratory work, nothing. 

Husam: Was there a specific reason that professors such as yourself were targeted during the civil war? 

Alfred: It’s the connection between universities and the political arena. Those who are leading, enlightening societies, are coming from universities, most of them are professors at universities, especially after the independence. These are the elites, these are the scholars who are leading many social movements, like unions, any kind of intellectual movement to push for freedom, to push for democracy. This former president, President Laurent Gbagbo, was himself professor of history at the University of Cocody.  

Husam: So, was there any specific incident that happened, that made you realize that you need to leave the country? 

Alfred: Even though I didn’t have any connection with the administration of this president, but because I’m a professor at the University, I was part of those who were targeted.  

I was also kind of member of the ethnic group of this President. Also, I did some international conferences, I had some positions where I was critical against the political violence or the political situation in my country. So, because of this we received threats, so I wanted to keep my family safe, and it wasn’t only me, many of us were threatened. So, you won’t stay until the threat comes to you. And I put my family first to make them travel. My kids were crying, were crying. My daughter was crying. She didn’t want to go without her dad, but I needed to make sure that they reached where they were going safe.  

They were to identify themselves, not with my name, but my wife would be showing her birth name and just stating that she has lost her ID card. And because she is a woman and she had the kids, I think she was able to play this card and to cross instead of being with me. That would have put them more in danger.  

And then a friend of ours from Geneva was really really helpful, really nice, calling people to help us. That was late March, and the situation was getting worse in Abidjan. It is at the same time when we heard from international human rights organizations, that the rebels killed 800 people in one day in this town of Duekoue. So, after I sent my family, finally decided not to stay behind and to flee myself and join my family. 

Of course, it was hard to travel, to cross all this area from Abidjan to Accra, but I made it. And from Accra I continue to Togo, and that is where we got ready and we got in touch with Scholars at Risk. And that is how Scholars at Risk helped me and my family to be relocated in the United States. 

Husam: So, Alfred, as we speak, as you know, we’re seeing events unfold in Afghanistan that are causing people, including academics and scientists, to flee. What would you like to tell your fellow academics in Afghanistan right now?   

Yes, with this current situation I’m really concerned about what’s happening in Afghanistan, but not only to be concerned, but to think about what’s the first thing we should do. I think it’s to show this scientific solidarity. I know that it’s really hard to leave, especially if you’re doing research in your area. But I’m now myself a board member of Scholars at Risk. I have been seeing what we have been doing in the last couple of weeks to anticipate and to be proactive too. We have launched a lot of inquiries to request to universities to host some of our refugee scientists from Afghanistan. So, Scholars at Risk, and many other organizations involved in this kind of activities, are doing their best to give them the chance to be safe first and then to start over some of their activities and to welcome my peers from Afghanistan, offering them – as I had the chance – some temporary positions at the Universities, at some institutes, research institutes, research centres, where they can rest, breathe a little bit and if they have the chance, to start over their academic research, their academic work.  

From all those people coming out of Afghanistan, at some point we need to look at what knowledge they’re bringing, you know, with them, what culture they’re bringing with them, what talent they have, what can they do for themselves, and for the host country, the host society, the host community. And that is where we should be putting more focus, more money, to build up the power. 

So, I would like to use this opportunity to send them my solidarity.  

Husam: Refugee scientist, displaced scientist or scientist in exile, which status do you identify with, if any at all, and how connected do you feel towards that status, Alfred?  

Yes, I was a scholar at risk, right, first. Scholar at risk because I was in this war zone where I was about to be assassinated, I was about to be killed. This status moved and changed over my period of refuge in Ghana first and then in Togo. And I became in Togo someone who was a refugee. And I couldn’t say I was a scientist in exile in Togo for example, because I stayed in Togo for 8 months but I couldn’t really go back to teaching, or doing research. I was doing nothing all day.  

So, this situation, this period, I can say at that time I was just a refugee. It wasn’t connected to my profession. And I tried after four months, I tried to go by myself at the University of Lome in Togo, and I was begging some colleagues in sociology department to say I feel like I’m dying because there is nothing to do. Is it possible for me to come and give some lecture, you know, for free? I’m not asking you to pay me, nothing, but I want to start living again through my profession, at least being before students, having the conversations with students, having conversations with some of my colleagues would be something that would really help me. 

And when I came in the United States through the Scholars at Risk, so I was hosted at one university. So, I think at that time I was really a scientist refugee and now I can say maybe I’m kind of getting out of this identity. 

Husam: So, since you’ve migrated to the U.S., how has your work and research changed or evolved? And what were some of the opportunities that allowed that change to occur?   

Alfred: Right. As a scientist, even if I’m a scientist, since I’m a refugee and I was granted asylum, for example, I’m not allowed to go back to my country, right? So, how do you research? Usually when we’re doing our research in our countries, our research topics, sites of research, whether you’re social scientists or not, it’s kind of located in these parts of your country. 

For me, most of my research sites were in Côte d’Ivoire. I was doing research on land and then on political violence in youth in Côte d’Ivoire. It will probably be the same for my colleagues from Afghanistan who would be moving.  

So, when you find yourself in London or in Paris or in the U.S., then the question is, how do you continue this kind of research? How do you keep working on this kind of topic, right?  

You have to build what we call kind of a grey zone of new identity in terms of research. So, you have to find some intellectual arrangements in which you can keep working in, for me, in the American academia. At the same time, keeping my research through some network in Côte d’Ivoire, where I could be asking some of my colleagues or graduate students to collect information for me, to collect data for me.  

And of course, you have the research environment is totally different. You have plenty of resources that you couldn’t have access to when you are in your country. So, here I have access to libraries, you have access to books, you have funding to attend conferences, you have funding to present your research, you have funding to go, you know, somewhere else to do your research and of course, develop networking.  

Husam: So, Alfred, you’re one of the founders of the ‘Share the Platform’ initiative – Could you tell us a little bit about the programme?  

Share the Platform is an initiative that’s really emphasizing that we need to centre our efforts on the skills and competencies of refugees. Whether they’re artists, whether they’re journalists, whether they’re academics or even if it’s ordinary people, they have some talents that we need to emphasize.  

All those agencies which are doing great work, which are doing very fantastic work to help those refugees, we are asking them that on the way down, at some point, they need to share the platform. They need to share the podium with the refugees.  

For the first period of time, they can talk for them, they can talk on behalf of them, ok, but at some point, they need make some space and give the refugees themselves, you know, the occasion to voice for themselves and we might be surprised and we might discover many, many talents that those refugees have but that they’re kind of hiding, or they don’t have the opportunity to talk about if we don’t give them the podium, if we don’t give them the chance to speak up. 

Husam: Thank you Professor Alfred Babo for being on this episode, and sharing your story with Science International. 

This podcast is part of an ongoing refugee and displaced scientists project called Science in Exile. It’s run by Science International, an initiative in which three global science organizations collaborate at the forefront of science policy. These are, the International Science Council, The World Academy of Sciences and the InterAcademy Partnership.  

For more information on the Science in Exile project please head over to: council.science/scienceinexile 

The information, opinions and recommendations presented by our guests do not necessarily reflect the values and the beliefs of Science International. 

Alfred Babo

Alfred Babo

Alfred Babo is a faculty member at Fairfield University’s International Studies Program and Sociology and Anthropology Department in the United States. Prior to joining Fairfield University, he taught at the University of Bouaké in Côte d’Ivoire and later at Smith College and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, USA. Babo’s research focuses on social change, child labor and development, immigration and social conflict, and post-conflict society. His recent publications analyse refugees and post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation policies in Africa from a comparative perspective.


Disclaimer

The information, opinions and recommendations presented by our guests are those of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of Science International, an initiative bringing together top-level representatives of three international science organizations: the International Science Council (ISC,) the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), and The World Academy of Sciences (UNESCO-TWAS).


Header photo: Stephen Monroe on Unsplash.

Share: