The White House abandons Fulbrighters in Russia

American citizens awarded prestigious Fulbright grants for work across Russia have now been ordered by the US Department of State to take risky commercial flights home.

While the US military is shuttling out American tourists and reckless spring-breakers from Peru and other countries, these American teaching assistants and researchers — many recent college graduates effectively serving as cultural ambassadors abroad – have been left behind to make their way out however they can.

In a March 19 letter from the State Department’s Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau, the Fulbright community worldwide was informed of the US Global Level 4 Travel Advisory, instructing all Americans “to return home or shelter in place.”

 “In response to this Advisory, the U.S. Fulbright Program will be suspended worldwide, effective immediately.” The Fulbrighters were offered logistical assistance, but no written guarantees on reimbursement for travel expenses.

After receiving the March 19 letter, the Russia Fulbrighters were subsequently called individually by the program liaison, the Institute for International Education (IIE), instructing them to leave on commercial flights as soon as possible, but at least by sometime in April. A Towson University faculty member currently in Russia, Jeremy Tasch, was contacted by Towson’s Administration on Friday March 20. Rather than offering words of collegial support, assistance, and/or sympathy, instead Professor Tasch was instructed to sign a multi-page waiver absolving Towson of any and all possible responsibilities, including acknowledgement “…that claims submitted under personal insurance policies may be denied and the University cannot guarantee insurance company coverage of a claim.” 

Amid these confusing messages, the Fulbright grantees have no certainty as to their safety or visa status in Russia, their security en route out, their health and the health of their families, and financial reimbursement for having to fly non-US carriers. Some already tried to book commercial flights, only to see them abruptly cancelled.

Information on the spread of the coronavirus in Russia is limited, and quality medical care is not ensured, particularly outside of major cities where many of the Fulbrighters were deployed to teach English or conduct research.

According to Johns Hopkins University, the country has 253 declared cases, a figure that is widely seen as an underestimate. The main exit route is a Moscow-JFK flight on Russian airline Aeroflot. New York, which has 5,600 cases and 43 deaths from the disease so far, is a coronavirus hotspot.

At present there are around 18 Fulbright grant recipients, plus some spouses, in Russia. A few are in the cities of Moscow, St Petersburg and Kazan, while others are in Siberia and other remote areas, and could face challenges just traveling safely to the Russian capital.

One of the grantees, originally from California, is currently in home quarantine in Moscow as she awaits the results of a Covid-19 test. She is asthmatic, and had planned to stay in Russia for the time being to safeguard her health and the health of her family, which also suffers from asthma.

The Fulbright program, named after Arkansas senator J William Fulbright, offers educational and cultural exchange programs in more than 160 countries. “Participants of this program represent our Nation as citizen ambassadors,” President Donald Trump told the Fulbright recipients upon their acceptance into the program in 2019.

These Fulbrighters now deserve the same protection and concern as other Americans who have been airlifted to safety.

2019-2020 Fulbright Scholars and Students in Russia

Submitted to The Towerlight March 21.


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