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Escape From Assad: Universities Open Their Doors To Syria’s Business Academics

A host of charities are helping Syria’s university professors and researchers find academic placements elsewhere

Tue Dec 5 2017

Amena (not her real name) was teaching business administration at the University of Aleppo in Syria when the civil war started.

Day by day, the situation worsened. At the university, resources were in scant supply and power cuts were common. Some of Amena’s students joined the fighting; others were sent away to Turkey or Germany. From 2011 to 2014, student numbers dropped by more than half.

Caught in the middle of a warzone, Amena lost her house and, in October 2015, her husband was killed in the bombing.

“By that point, I was so upset that I just couldn’t stand it anymore,” Amena recalls. “I felt like I had to move; I couldn’t go on.

“Just sending my children to school, I worried about the bombing, or that someone might kidnap them,” she continues. “My students kept hearing bombs here, bombs there—the atmosphere and the behavior of the students changed.”

Amena contacted Cara (The Council for At-Risk Academics)—a UK charity that rescues university professors and researchers from life-threatening situations and places them into academic positions in universities in the UK—and was offered a placement as a research fellow at the University of Cambridge.

First, she had to make the perilous journey from Syria to Lebanon to get a visa. Over 200 miles in a private taxi, Amena and her two children prayed they’d make it. They did. After three tough weeks in Lebanon, they got the visa they needed. “That was a great moment for the three of us,” she says.

Amena now lives in university accommodation with her children. 30% of Cara fellows are female; many bring their immediate families with them.

Her ex-colleagues back in Aleppo are struggling on. Despite attacks from militants, the university (pictured below) has stayed open throughout the crisis. But Amena is looking for a job in the UK—she doesn’t know when she’ll be able to return home.


Tragically, Amena’s story is not unique. Cara—founded in 1933 in response to the expulsion of academics from Nazi Germany—currently works with over 600 displaced scholars and over 117 universities across the UK. The universities waive tuition fees, provide funds for living costs, and academic placements for scholars at risk.

“That could mean anything from general conflict, where the universities themselves are attacked, to cases—like in Turkey—where individuals may have said something that makes them unpopular,” explains Stephen Wordsworth (pictured right), former diplomat and ambassador for the British embassy in Belgrade, and Cara’s executive director since 2012.


“There’s intimidation, people can get beaten up, abducted, tortured, threatened with the death penalty. It can be to do with sexual orientation, ethnicity, and religion—we’ve supported Syrian Christians from parts of the country overrun by ISIS,” he continues.

“The largest single group we have currently are Syrians. For most of our scholars, the aim is to return home as soon as they can—certainly people from Iraq did so. But for the Syrians now, it’s difficult. Some of them were strongly opposed to Assad’s regime, and the regime seems to be consolidating power.”

Originally from Damascus, Ali (not his real name) was living in Qatar as the war raged on back home in Syria. He was pursuing a full-time MBA program at Qatar University and working as a teaching assistant—his via sponsored by the school.

But, when he graduated in 2015, his nationality, compounded by the falling in oil prices in the Middle East, made it difficult to find an employer that would sponsor his visa.

“I was not in a good situation when I finished my studies,” Ali explains. “As a Syrian national, I’m viewed with suspicion in the Arab states. People might think: what kind of Syrian is he? Is he supportive of the government? Is he mentally ill, or dangerous?

“My family are racially classified as opponents of the Syrian government. Some of my cousins have been arrested because they participated in anti-government demonstrations. One of them was unfortunately killed; one of them was tortured. But I knew that if I couldn’t find a job in Qatar, I would be forced to go back to Syria.”

Ali started considering PhD programs and applied for help from Scholars at Risk. Similar to Cara, the US-based charity helps place academics in temporary research and teaching positions at partner institutions globally.

Ali was placed on the PhD program at the University of Portsmouth in the UK. He’s living in student housing, his expenses are covered, and he has access to libraries across the country.

80% of Scholars at Risk placements are in Europe. In the past year, after Turkey, Syria is the country whose academics it’s worked with the most.


Also in the US, the Institute of International Education Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE-SRF) has, since, 2002, assisted 737 scholars from 58 countries, placing them at more than 375 host partner institutions in 43 countries around the world.

The organization has its roots in the early 1920s when the Russian Student Fund was set up in response to scholars fleeing Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. Sarah Willcox has been the Scholar Rescue Fund’s director for the past five years.

“We’re seeing the same sorts of tactics by governments, paramilitary groups, and non-state actors year after year,” she says, “seeking to silence academics, suppress dissent, and increase their control.

“In the early stages of the Scholar Rescue Fund, we were responding more to individual threats,” Sarah explains. “When the Iraq crisis happened, we saw hundreds and hundreds of applications from Iraqis in a short period of time—that changed our work dramatically.”

From 2007, the Iraq Scholar Rescue Project focused on keeping Iraqi scholars in the region with a view to, one day, returning them back home.

More than 300 Iraqi scholars recieved help from the project. Nearly 50% of those returned or were due to return to Iraq. But, in June 2014, ISIS took over parts of the country and many of the scholars supported by the project started contacting the Scholar Rescue Fund again, asking for help.

“That was devastating,” Sarah recalls. “But the Iraq crisis taught us how we can respond to one country in particular.

“We’ve seen it in Syria where we’ve helped over 100 Syrian professors—the scholars need to get out quickly, have their families come with them, and a place to do their work safely,” she continues.

“They may be coming from different parts of the world, but the stories are always the same.”