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Helping international academics fleeing conflict and persecution

24 February 2016
Stephen Wordsworth

Stephen Wordsworth

Executive Director
Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara)
Busy road with pedestrians

The reason I am leaping into the blogosphere today is to say a bit about what Cara (Council for At-Risk Academics) – represented by me - is going to be talking about in the International Higher Education Forum 2016 in London on 1 March.  The Forum itself is going to be a big event this year, with some very topical subjects up for debate, all under the conference theme, ‘Show me where the world is going’. 

My particular part of the agenda is a break-out session under the heading ‘Responding to the Refugee Crisis’.  We have all been moved by the pictures we have seen, over recent months, of thousands of people trying desperately to escape from violence in the Middle East, and many universities have responded strongly, with special scholarship schemes for refugees, especially for those from Syria. John Joughin from UEL is speaking in the same session as me, and UEL announced a scheme for Syrians last autumn, one of several universities to do so.

At Cara, of course, this is very much what we do every day, and we are seeing a massive rise in the number of applications for support we are receiving from university teachers and researchers, trying to escape from truly frightening conditions. Some have already been forced out of their jobs by conflict, with their houses in ruins and close family members injured or even killed.  Some just can’t live any longer with the new ‘Russian roulette’ version of what used to be the routine drive to work – will today be the day that one of the thugs, at one of the many road blocks, decides to rob me, beat me up, drag me off to be locked up or forced into the army – or just shoots me?  For women, the risks can be different, but no less violent, such as the bullet in the envelope sent to one female academic in Iraq who refused to cover up in the way her more radicalised students demanded.  There are more personal stories in our latest Annual Report.

The surprising thing – and it’s a point I’ll be making in my session at the Forum – is that, despite all these horrors, most of the people we are supporting now do not see themselves as ‘refugees’.  They may have had to leave, often in a hurry – and in a few cases literally under fire, trying to escape from an ‘ISIS’-controlled area, or making an ‘illegal’ exit across the border.  But they are very clear that they still want to return when they can, to help rebuild a stronger society with better institutions. Indeed, some tell us in terms that they see it as their duty to do so.  What they are looking for now is temporary refuge, and the chance to develop their skills and build the networks they will need when they can return.

Fortunately, many of the universities in our UK ‘Network​’ have found ways of significantly increasing the support they are able to provide for Cara Fellows, going beyond fee waivers, to offer generous contributions on top to help meet their living costs, or in some cases, taking on the full costs of the placement.  But as fast as – or actually rather quicker than – we confirm a place for one person, another application for support arrives, sometimes ten a week, each with its tale of suffering.  So the crucial message, as with the wider refugee crisis, is that we all need to be planning, and lining up the funding, several years ahead.

At the same time, this is not just a ‘problem’.  It is, above all, about people, who started out with the same hopes and dreams as university academics here, or in any other country.  They bring with them their unique experience, which can enrich the universities that take them in; and, as we found with some of our Iraq Fellows a few years ago, their temporary stay can lay the foundation for a lasting partnership when they return.  So, even in these grim circumstances, it can be turned into ‘win-win’.

Stephen Wordsworth is the Executive Director of Cara and will be speaking at the International Higher Education Forum 2016

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