Scholar at Risk Lety Elvir Lazo: ‘My university intimidated me too’
The proceeds of the Leiden University Science Run on 28 September will go to Scholars at Risk, a section of the UAF that assists refugee scholars. One such scholar is Leiden PhD candidate Lety Elvir Lazo from Honduras.
Lety Elvir Lazo spent 20 years working as a lecturer and author in Honduras. She now has a PhD scholarship from Scholars at Risk (SAR) and works at the Leiden University Centre for Arts in Society. She is conducting research into Central-American literature written by women in the period 1992-2002. That is one of the many post-war periods that Honduras has known; in Honduras, democracy and dictatorship have been following each other in succession for a long time already. Elvir also looks at how women are depicted in the context of failed revolutions and uprisings and increasing neoliberalism and globalisation in Central America.
Why did you flee Honduras?
‘There was a coup in June 2009, which resulted in a dictatorship. This dictatorship is involved in corruption, drug trafficking, election fraud and giving away natural resources to multinationals. I left Honduras because I was threatened, persecuted and monitored by groups and people who were part of the repressive state apparatus and/or paramilitaries.
‘In Honduras, there are death squads that abduct, torture and murder people if they are suspected of belonging to the opposition. The same is true for environmental and human rights activists. Even more painful was that I also fell victim to political persecution at the university where I had worked for 20 years. A few months before I left Honduras, my colleague Héctor Martínez Motiño, who like me was harassed and intimidated by the university administration, was killed with 12 bullets at the entrance to the university.’
How did you come into contact with SAR and how did you end up in the Netherlands and then Leiden?
‘I came to the Netherlands at the end of 2015, as writer in residence at the invitation of the city of Amsterdam and the Dutch Foundation for Literature. I write stories, poems and literary essays.
‘SAR protects scholars whose life, freedom and wellbeing are under severe threat. It is a place of refuge for threatened academics.’
‘Then somebody told me about the UAF programme that helps threatened university lecturers and academics: SAR. SAR protects researchers whose life, freedom and wellbeing are under severe threat. It is a place of refuge for threatened academics, and an international network of higher education institutions that arrange for temporary research and teaching positions within this network as well as offering advice.
‘Later on, the UAF-SAR provided me with a scholarship, and Leiden University gave me the opportunity to do PhD research at the Faculty of Humanities. To be closer to the University, I moved to Leiden in 2019.
‘I have now experienced what the UAF-SAR can mean. You feel solidarity within the network of supporting universities – such as Leiden University, which opens its doors to people who need space to work, write, think and express ourselves in freedom. Space in which we can keep in touch with our subject and can continue to be of use by sharing our experience and above all living out our passion for free scholarship.’
Do you hold out any hope of returning to your own country?
‘At the moment it’s really dangerous. There’s no guarantee that you’ll survive under the present dictatorship, which, unfortunately, is supported by governments such as that of Trump. They prefer to see my country being governed by politicians who are involved in drug trafficking than by governments that are truly democratic. Of course I, like birds, turtles and most refugees, want to return to my homeland: I miss my family; I miss everything, except the violence. Luckily, I can develop in peace here, in freedom and without fear. That’s a real relief. I wish it were like that in my homeland.’
What is it like doing research in Leiden in comparison with in your homeland? And how do you find the Dutch?
‘The main difference is that can devote myself almost fulltime to my research in an environment in which there is no bullying. In Honduras, it was difficult to obtain a research budget if you didn’t say what the university administration wanted to hear. In practice, there is no freedom of education in Honduras, no freedom of expression and no freedom of research.
‘Having lived in the Netherlands for a number of years, I still can’t say with any certainty what the people are really like here. I have the general impression that they are open and very sociable, although they sometimes face the dilemma of whether they should be open to immigration. After all, we stand for the other, and that is often seen as something different, disruptive and even threatening.
‘You don’t leave your homeland if you’re being treated decently.’
‘However, there are two things that I know without a shadow of a doubt: first, you don’t leave your homeland if you are being treated decently and your human rights are being respected. Second, there is a complicit silence among governments and international organisations about the neocolonial genocide against the population of Honduras. And also about how Hondurans, who, under threat of violence, flee to survive only to come up against walls of stone, water and documents. They often have to take perilous routes that are controlled by criminals or they end up in the immense prisons and cemeteries that the countries in the funnel of Central to North America have become. If you invest money or have economic interests in the area, from an ethical, moral and humanitarian perspective you bear a big responsibility to contribute to a solution and to end the war, the foreign interventions plundering our assets and the suffering of our courageous peoples who continue to fight for their health and happiness.’
Why should people take part in the Leiden Science Run or donate to the Scholars at Risk programme?
‘Because people who are critical thinkers and democratically minded are entitled to express their thoughts everywhere, not just on campus, without being intimidated, persecuted, vilified, imprisoned or murdered. If the academic world says nothing, if universities are not a place for free speech, research and solutions to national and international problems, universities don’t serve a single purpose. Then they are neglecting their duty. And if we allow voices of protest to be stifled or punished, we allow hope to fade and democracy to die. Then the world, of which we only have one, becomes a hell instead of our home. And happiness is possible for no one. That is why we need to rise up for the freedom of expression and freedom of thought of everyone.’