Kent State welcomes Rwandan genocide survivor as professor

Jackie Mantey

For many, being the dean of a law school means a BMW and a financially comfortable lifestyle.

For Jean Marie Kamatali, it meant harassment, persecution and violence.

The Rwandan native was targeted because of his prominence and survival of the genocide of 1994 where approximately 800,000 people were murdered within the course of 100 days.

Kamatali is now a professor in the Kent State political science department and is teaching part time through the Scholars at Risk program.

SAR held an informational meeting yesterday afternoon to discuss the foundations of the program and to honor Kamatali.

This school year marks the first installation of the international program at the university, and those involved are looking forward to helping Kamatali and other foreign scholars who are being persecuted in their home countries.

“We help them do things they really want to do in freedom without feeling threatened,” said Charles Nieman, academic program director of the Center for International and Comparative Programs.

Kent State joined 101 other educational institutions from around the world in the international network of universities and colleges that organize together to promote academic freedom and defend the human rights of scholars.

The network offers direct assistance and temporary refuge to the scholars after they are approached by SAR or contact the program themselves to get funding to go to the different universities.

“The hope is that the scholars will find a new home and eventually think, ‘It is my turn to help people,'” Nieman said.

SAR has headquarters in New York. It awards matching-sum fellowships for scholars to visit institutions where they teach part-time and continue their studies.

Nieman said the university found it important to join the network not only to help the scholars but to help the students.

Kamatali met Nieman at an SAR conference and soon knew Kent State was somewhere he would feel comfortable.

“Nieman was the most relaxed out of all of my contacts. He made things easy for me, and I thought, ‘Wow, Kent State is somewhere I can really do something,'” Kamatali said.

While commuting from Indiana, Kamatali stays at Nieman’s house Tuesday through Thursday so he can teach political science, justice studies, history and conflict management.

He also teaches a genocide and human rights course.

“It is our hope that his presence and activity during his visit may serve to inform, to engage and, as appropriate, to challenge,” said Ken Cushner, executive director of international affairs. “His story is compelling, and we feel strongly that as a symbol of threatened academic freedom, he offers us all an important message.”

After moving to America, Kamatali studied and lived around the country and was approached by SAR to teach in Mexico or Ohio.

The choice was easy.

“I wanted to link legal studies with my skills (in human rights and peace keeping), and I felt like God was making miracles to give me this opportunity,” he said. “It was also more convenient for my family to be able to stay in Indiana.”

Even though Rwanda holds several sad memories for Kamatali, he said he hopes to eventually return and is currently working on programs to create awareness about his home country.

“I feel always the need to go back. I would like to make a difference there,” he said. “I feel like I am doing that here, but I hope one day to go back home.”

Kamatali’s contract at the university ends in May, and he said so far it has been a great experience.

“I was impressed with the people at Kent State. I was well received, and everyone was so friendly,” he said. “I don’t feel like a foreigner here.”

With the first year of SAR at Kent State being successful so far, Nieman said he looks forward to helping threatened scholars in future years as well.

“We are very proud to be doing this, and I hope this is the first of many years to come,” he said.

Contact College of Architecture and Environmental Design and School of Art reporter Jackie Mantey at [email protected].