Education

Student from Congo is among UK's degree recipients

Fraternel Amuri, who will receive his doctorate from UK in political science on Sunday, was photographed near his office on the UK campus in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, May 2, 2012. His dissertation was on child soldiers, a topic he knows something about as he is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was able to stay at UK as part of a special program for at-risk political refugees. Charles Bertram | Staff
Fraternel Amuri, who will receive his doctorate from UK in political science on Sunday, was photographed near his office on the UK campus in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, May 2, 2012. His dissertation was on child soldiers, a topic he knows something about as he is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was able to stay at UK as part of a special program for at-risk political refugees. Charles Bertram | Staff Herald-Leader

In a more peaceful world, Fraternel Amuri would have been handed his doctorate during a ceremony at the University of Kisangani in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

That's where he received his bachelor's and master's degrees, and where his research is based.

Instead, Amuri will wear his cap and gown at the University of Kentucky commencement ceremonies on Sunday. His diploma rewards not only his scholarly work on the bloodshed that has torn his country apart, but the efforts of many others around the world who worked persistently to help him receive it.

"I am very excited," Amuri said of graduation. "It has not been easy, but I am very optimistic in everything I am doing."

He needed to be. The road to his Ph.D. included two wars, having to flee his country with his wife and four children, a new home, new co-workers and a new language in Lexington. It culminated with UK's first-ever doctoral defense conducted on Skype in front of scholars from three countries, including his own.

"It's a miracle story that it ever came to pass really," said Susan Carvalho, associate provost for international programs at UK, who helped Amuri through the drawn-out process. "It will be a real triumph for him to put on that cap and gown."

Amuri's academic career began and survived amid warfare in the Congo. He studied political science at the University of Kisangani. His first graduation coincided with the rebellion of Laurent Kabila, who in 1996 began his successful attempt to create the Democratic Republic of Congo after the longtime rule of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

"We didn't have a graduation ceremony because of all the armed conflict," Amuri said.

Amuri was able to start work on his master's degree in political science. His work soon centered on militia movements that started amid the conflicts. He considers them acts of self-preservation amid the total chaos of a weak central government and open rebellion. Amuri also studied the use of messianic religious language used to attract youth and others to the militias.

One week before a big uprising began against Kabila, Amuri received his master's. But writing about wars in the Congo means you more or less have to take sides, "making a kind of advocacy," as he describes it. He continued his course work, but his work was controversial, unpopular with the established government, and he felt unable to publish his papers or get started on his doctorate.

Then Amuri heard about the Institute for International Education's Scholar Rescue Fund, which helps scholars continue their work outside of danger zones. Amuri applied and was accepted in 2007, and he moved to Amherst, Mass., where he worked to complete his dissertation on militias.

In 2010, he was accepted at UK so he could finish his dissertation. The fund provided $25,000, which was matched by UK. He and his family arrived in fall 2010. He took English classes in the fall, and he started teaching in spring 2011, in both the political science and anthropology departments.

By then, Amuri was ready to defend his dissertation, a process in which a doctoral candidate speaks and answers questions about his work in front of a committee of scholars. However, the University of Kisangani, which would award his degree, was reluctant.

Carvalho said that after a great deal of discussion, the Kisangani officials agreed to a three-part supervisory committee. In a Skype conference, two professors from UK joined two African studies professors at the Sorbonne and two more in Kisangani.

"It took a great deal of persistence on our part to convince them this would be an appropriate way to verify the scholarly merit of his dissertation, and they finally agreed," Carvalho said.

Amuri defended successfully and was awarded his doctorate with distinction. But the University of Kisangani had one more roadblock: Officials there wanted him to return to the Congo for graduation to receive his degree in person.

Naturally, Amuri did not want to do this. Luckily, his adviser at Kisangani, who had moved to France, returned to the country and was allowed to pick up his paperwork.

The entire process was slowed by violence, then elections, then violence again, Carvalho said.

"Juliana McDonald (in anthropology) was very persistent and gets a lot of credit for keeping pressure on," Carvalho said. People from UK sent letters from the president, several deans and several department chairs, "pushing the issue so they (Kisangani university officials) were visible in terms of agreeing or not agreeing to this unusual form of degree completion."

One other requirement by Kisangani university was agreed to: At the end of the Skype conference, UK officials helped Amuri put on a cap and gown.

UK has since awarded Amuri a post-doctoral fellowship so he can continue his research and teach for another year. Now the university is looking for another match from the Scholar Rescue Fund, which says it has placed about 450 scholars in 48 countries since 2002.

"This has been so important for the campus," Carvalho said. "The fact of his situation makes a faraway conflict very real for his students. We do hope to have a continuous stream of visiting scholars here who can bring that perspective to our students."

As for Amuri, now that his children have settled into life as Americans, he's glad to have another year in Lexington before he goes into the job market.

"I am very excited to continue my life as a scholar in U.S. communities," he said. "This is a motivation for me to do well as a teacher. This means I am accepted."

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