UK charity rescues Syrian academic in first of 10 missions to war-torn Middle Eastern countries

Top British universities offering places to conflict threatened scientists

A member of the Kurdish Peshmerga militia faces ISIS positions in Diyala, Iraq, in June 2014. AFP
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A female Syrian academic has become the first of 10 scholars from a war-torn Middle Eastern country to be rescued by a British charity as part of a two-month operation in collaboration with a number of leading universities.

Top British universities have offered 10 places to the conflict threatened academics.

The 38-year-old, who has not been identified, was rescued by Cara, the Council for At-Risk Academics, which offers a lifeline to academics at risk of persecution, violence and death.

Faced with repeated bombings and the threat of ISIS kidnappings, the academics and their families have been living in constant fear.

The charity identified the woman as being in danger and over the last few months organised her escape to Britain.

Her journey was fraught with difficulties after she contracted Covid-19 prior to being transported to Lebanon.

Now, however, she is safely in the UK and is set to commence a PhD placement at a leading UK university.

The charity is working to rescue nine other academics, which include four men and five women from Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Turkey, over the next two months.

They have also been found places at some of the UK’s top universities and research institutions, including the University of Oxford, King’s College London and Durham University.

The academics are specialists in medicine, biochemistry and sciences.

Rescued academics have been found places at some of the UK’s top universities and research institutions, including the University of Oxford. Getty Images
Rescued academics have been found places at some of the UK’s top universities and research institutions, including the University of Oxford. Getty Images

"They are facing their university facilities repeatedly being bombed," a spokesman for Cara told The National.

“One academic we have helped saw her university bombed and mortar shells hitting her daughter’s school.

“Some are repeatedly threatened, kidnapped, disappeared or held for ransom by ISIS.”

Stephen Wordsworth, executive director of Cara, who served in his previous career as the UK’s Ambassador to Belgrade, said the academics were facing “constant threats”.

“We are delighted to welcome to the UK our latest Cara Fellow, and to know also that other brilliant academics are soon to follow,” he said.

“They are fleeing from conflicts, and from regimes which are forcing out their brightest thinkers. They include two Yemenis who have been facing constant threats from armed militia, who have been forced to teach in universities controlled by rebel forces under slave-like conditions, with no financial remuneration for several years.

“They are constantly persecuted and cannot afford to live and provide for their families. There are many more suffering like them, in many countries. So our support is urgently needed.”

More than 120 universities and other institutions in the UK help to support Cara. It has saved thousands of lives since its first rescue operation in 1933, which was supported by Albert Einstein, when it was set up to help Jewish and other academics flee Nazi persecution.

Since then, Cara has worked to provide safe havens for generations of scholars fleeing violence, repression and threats to intellectual and individual freedom.

The charity supports their escape, and often that of their families, by using its extensive network of contacts to help them to find top academic placements in the UK.

The pandemic has made its work more difficult due to the closure of land borders and visa offices, restricted air travel and the closure of Covid-testing centres in Iraq.

“Our work is naturally challenging, but this pandemic has thrown up exceptional obstacles,” Mr Wordsworth said.

“And this came at a time when Cara was already receiving its highest number of appeals for help since the 1930s. This is clearly a reflection of regional conflicts and the wider growth of global division, social unrest, populism and authoritarian regimes. Another exodus of scholarship talent is on the rise.

“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.

“There are many countries today which oppress, imprison and murder their most gifted minds, and Britain’s universities and its public have been outstanding in embracing these intellectual victims, who have given, and are still giving, so much to us in return during their stay here.”

Since Cara’s first rescue operation, 16 academics have become Nobel Laureates and 18 have received knighthoods.

They have included Sir Hans Krebs, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1953, Max Born, a pioneer of quantum mechanics, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1954 and Max Perutz, who won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.