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Scholars Fleeing War-Torn Middle East Find Safety in U.K. Universities

On campus at the University of Liverpool, Ataa Alsalloum feels happy and safe. She and her daughter were rescued from Syria in 2016, a departure arranged by the U.K.-based charity Cara (Council for At-Risk Academics).

Alsalloum now works as a lecturer in architecture and urban heritage at Liverpool, developing the career that made her a target for Islamic State militants in her homeland.

“This is a multicultural city,” she says, “a place where all international people are welcomed, particularly around the university, where I am happy and respected and part of the staff. It’s a good place to be.”

In February, Cara rescued another female Syrian academic, the first of ten scholars from war-torn countries in the Middle East being brought to the United Kingdom over the coming months. Some are fleeing conflict, others are the targets of despotic regimes.

“Our mission at Cara is to get threatened academics safely out of their respective countries and settled into their new positions. They are enormously talented, truly among ‘the best and brightest,’ and we find them places where they will be safe to do their research and to carry out their vital work until they can go home again,” says Stephen Wordsworth, executive director of Cara.

The Last Straw: Shelling of Her Daughter’s School

At the time of her rescue, Alsalloum was living in Damascus, having fled her home city of Homs. But the war had come to the capital too and danger was constant.

“Going to university every day was putting your life at risk because you don’t know when the mortar shells will hit. … But when you’re in the middle of a war you can’t just stop living.”

Alsalloum and her daughter, then aged 12, moved five times as the army battled to regain the city from ISIS militants. “I remember sometimes sleeping on the floor of the bathroom to avoid accidental bullets, which were another risk if you had a house on the corner or a main street.” (See a related article, “Syrian Children Are Deeply Disturbed By War, Report Says.”)

Then shells hit her daughter’s school, killing two of the girl’s friends and maiming others. When staff called Alsalloum to collect her daughter’s backpack, she knew they had to find a way out of Syria.

“There were many incidents when I thought that this would be the final straw; every time I would say it can’t get worse than this.”

“There were many incidents when I thought that this would be the final straw; every time I would say it can’t get worse than this.” But the devastation that day convinced her. “I started applying for jobs everywhere … just trying to get out.”

There were unofficial routes, which thousands turned to in desperation, but as a single mother, Alsalloum needed a safe channel. “We were two women, so I didn’t want to take any risks.”

She spotted details about Cara online and got in touch. “When they replied, I didn’t believe it, I still remember the moment.” It took over a year to sort out the paperwork, secure a visa and arrange a place to continue her career at Liverpool on a journey that took her from Damascus to the city she now calls home.

New Challenges From Covid-19

The Covid-19 crisis has thrown up new challenges for Cara at a time when the organization is receiving a record number of requests.

Sudden border closures, quarantine periods and coronavirus testing all add to the cost and complexity of planning a rescue, says Wordsworth.

“People will say sometimes, If you can’t get me out of here I’m going to be killed,” he says. “We work as fast as we can, but there’s only so much we can do to hurry things along, we’re dependent on other people and systems.”

Cara had a 100 percent success rate in securing visas in 2020, but there is no certainty that all will go to plan. A scholar was recently refused a stopover in Paris because the rules changed at the last minute due to coronavirus.

“It’s a great sense of relief and joy when somebody actually gets here,” Wordsworth says.

A Rescue From Mosul

Salam Dawood was able to take up the place Cara secured him to do a Ph.D. in dentistry at the University of Birmingham in December 2020. His journey was delayed by a year after the medical tests he needed to travel to the United Kingdom from Iraq were suspended because of Covid-19.

His situation had become increasingly perilous after ISIS overran his home city of Mosul in 2014. The militants threatened Dawood and his family, placing explosives in their home, then kidnapped and killed his uncle and cousin. He and the family fled, retuning only after the militants were expelled from the city in 2017. But members of the group remain active in and around Mosul, which lies in ruins, with many of its university facilities destroyed by fierce fighting to free the city. (See a related article, “Mosul’s Students Return to a Battered Campus.”)

“After the liberation of Mosul we thought the situation would become better, but it’s no good,” says Dawood, who uses a pseudonym to protect family still at risk in Iraq.

Landing in Heathrow Airport with his wife and two children last year was amazing, Dawood says. “We felt that we are safe and our dream has come true.”

Watching his 6-year-old daughter play in the park, chatting with new friends in the English she picked up at classes in Mosul, he feels confident about the future. “I finally got a place to complete my degree at one of the most developed universities, in one of the most developed countries in the world.”

Benefits to the Host Country

Bringing scholars with families increases the costs for Cara, which is funded by a range of foundations, trusts, private donors and individuals. “We prioritize on the basis of risk,” says Wordsworth, “but the more we spend on one family, the fewer other people can get help, so it’s a balance.”

“We prioritize on the basis of risk, but the more we spend on one family, the fewer other people can get help, so it’s a balance.”

Stephen Wordsworth  
Executive director of Cara

Currently, Cara is supporting 330 scholars at different stages—more than at any time in its history, which goes back to 1933, when it was set up to help Jewish and other academics fleeing Nazi persecution. Since then, the charity has saved thousands of lives, including 16 scholars who have gone on to receive Nobel Prizes and 18 who have been awarded knighthoods.

“The benefits to the U.K. are huge and the cost to the taxpayer is nothing,” says Wordsworth, pointing to the valuable work many Cara fellows go on to pursue. One from Syria is working on a pioneering method of Covid-19 diagnosis, while another is developing hybrid wheat and barley strains to be more resistant to the impacts of climate change.

In the past 10 years, there has been a focus on Syria, which accounts for over 40 percent of the applications Cara now receives, and the last 18 months have seen a surge in appeals from scholars in Yemen.

Though competent academics, some have been denied the opportunity to develop the credentials expected by U.K. universities. “In Syria, the system tended to push academics into teaching rather than research, so they don’t have the research skills you’d expect a postdoctoral academic to have in the Western system.”

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Cara advocates on their behalf, working with over 120 universities and other institutions across the country to find its fellows a place to develop their career. “Our objective, and theirs, is that they stay here as long as they need to,” says Wordsworth.

“But the aim is that wherever possible, they will go back home again because their skills will be needed and they want to help rebuild their countries where conditions allow. … We aren’t in the brain drain business.”

Unlike other organizations Cara focuses on postgraduates with teaching experience.

“If your aim is to rebuild a society, it’s no use having lots of students who have got their bachelors’ degrees if there’s nobody else there to teach them. It’s about helping the people that will be needed as teachers when they go back.”


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