Recent crises in the Middle East have led to a sharp rise in the number of university academics seeking help to escape fear, oppression and violence. With the active support of over 100 UK universities, Cara is continuing the work it began over eighty years ago to find persecuted academics a place where they can be safe to continue their work, with their families, until in most cases they are able to return home.

When ISIS entered Al-Ramadi in June 2014, they targeted Anbar University. Those of us who spoke out were beaten or killed by ISIS and student sympathisers. Our books and research were burned and laptops taken. Our colleges became our prisons and torture chambers. I am sad to say that we lost some of our best lecturers, killed by ISIS.” (Iraqi academic, 2015)

All that remains of Aleppo University, Syria Reuters

Over the last decade, millions of people across the Middle East have been forced from their homes by conflict and violence. Some have embarked on a long and dangerous trek to Europe. Many more have sought refuge in a neighbouring country, or are displaced and at risk within their own. And others are still hanging on, trying to carry on with their normal lives as best they can, as fighting and lawlessness swirl around them.

Among these millions of desperate people are, inevitably, thousands of university academics – people who had been building their careers as teachers or researchers in higher education. As conflicts have spread, basic services – power, water, transport – have collapsed, and university classes have shrunk as students have stayed away. Some universities have been caught up directly in conflict, as in Syria or Iraq, and have been forced to close. Some have even been turned into temporary prisons.

Where institutions are still functioning, academics on their way to work often have to negotiate multiple check-points, manned by regime troops or militias, with the ever-present risk of robbery, abduction, forced conscription or murder. Once at work, they may have to contend with the sound of nearby gunfire, and of barrel bombs falling on their once-peaceful neighbourhood. Some have witnessed colleagues kidnapped in the streets, to be held for ransom – academics are thought to be well-paid, and so are worth snatching.

Educated people are seen by some people as potential opposition. In Iraq, over 450 academics have been murdered since 2003 through a targeted campaign of assassination. Where ‘ISIS’ has taken over in Syria and Iraq, most university courses have been shut down; last autumn, in Mosul, three academics, Dr Hasan Jasem Mahmood, Professor Khasem Al-Allaf and Professor Tarek Muatez Al-Mytoty were reported to have been publicly executed for refusing to obey ‘ISIS’ orders. It’s no surprise that many academics across the Middle East are urgently looking for help, and the chance to escape to a place where they and their families will be safe.

“Thousands of our schools and educational institutions have been completely destroyed … Educational institutions that are not destroyed have become jails and torture centres occupied by the armed groups. The same places we used to go to teach or to learn, the armed men take us there to torture us … Many of our scientists and scholars have been killed and many others were liquidated in different ways … Now, I feel that no one cares about Syria. (Syrian Academic, Damascus; now being supported by Cara)

So what’s so special about Academics?

Nonetheless, against the wider background of millions at risk – including millions of young and vulnerable children – some people will inevitably ask why ‘academics’ deserve special attention and support.

It’s a fair question, and one which has been faced by the founders of Cara since its inception in 1933 as a rescue mission to support colleagues who were being expelled from their posts across Germany. But they had a simple answer. Given their own involvement in higher education (our founder was William Beveridge, then the Director of the LSE, and our first President was Lord Rutherford), they realised that their task was not just to rescue the people, as important as that was: it was also vital to save what they carried in their heads, the accumulated learning of their different institutions, which might otherwise be lost to the world forever.

As a result, they defined their mission as not just ‘the relief of suffering’, but also ‘the defence of learning and science’; and it is that two-fold mission which still guides our work today. We believe that science and learning have no geographical boundaries; that the pursuit of excellence is international; and that academics in higher education and research form a single global community. Where people cannot speak, write, teach and meet, freely and without fear, education will be compromised, truth will be denied and lies will become established.

Where higher education is destroyed and a country’s academics and scientists are killed or scattered to the four corners of the world, its intellectual capital will be lost and its devastated society will be much harder to re-build; there will soon be no teachers, no doctors, no architects, no lawyers. Young people will learn no skills. So we believe that it is right to do all we can to ensure that academics, researchers and university leaders who are in grave danger are helped, rescued where necessary, and their knowledge preserved.

“My story has been repeated a thousand times and more, with different details, but the same theme. An intellectual driven from his or her homeland by repression and intolerance, enabled by Cara to share ideas and values with welcoming hosts, improving skills … Cara does more than provide succour for people in need. It helps keep alive the spirit of free enquiry.” (Justice Albie Sachs, South Africa, Cara beneficiary 1966, 1988)

And they’re not all (or even mostly) ‘Refugees’

As events have developed over the last few years, however, one important difference has emerged between the way we work now and the situation in the 1930s. Then, most of those leaving Germany and other parts of Europe as they fell to fascism had to assume that they were leaving forever and would have to build new lives. Indeed, until the end of the 1990s, Cara was still very much in the ‘refugee business’.

But most of those who contact us for help today do not see their predicament as permanent. Yes, they have to escape, often very urgently, from situations where they and their families are in immediate danger. But most are quite clear that they want to go back, when conditions allow.

Until early 2014, the full version of our name was the ‘Council for Assisting Refugee Academics’. We changed it to the present version - the 'Council for At-Risk Academics' - largely because the very people we were helping kept telling us that they didn’t see themselves as ‘refugees’. They hadn’t abandoned their countries for ever, and they didn’t find that particular label helpful. What most of them wish for now is not a new long-term home, but a temporary safe haven, where they can maintain and develop their skills and build the networks they will need when they go back. Over the last ten years many Cara Fellows have returned home – indeed, many find it easier to go back, because they know that we are still here to help them, should the risk ever become too great again.

Returning Fellows are often much better-connected than they were before, and have the experience and skills to act as change agents, able to share the knowledge, concepts, materials and approaches they have learned during their time in the UK with new students and colleagues. They also play a key linking role between their colleagues back home and their international counterparts, at an individual and an institutional level. For example, our work with individual Iraqi academics in recent years has led to several lasting university-to-university partnerships.

“Now I have your Cara card, when the Taliban come I will call you. Until then I will stay here and get on with my work.” (University Vice Chancellor, Afghanistan)

Attempted assassination of a Baghdad academic, January 2013 Cara

How can UK Universities help?

What hasn’t changed since the 1930s is the importance of our links with UK universities. There had been close cooperation between Cara and a relatively small group of universities ever since our earliest days, but in 2006 we broadened this out, with the establishment of the ‘Cara Scholars at Risk UK Universities Network’. In less than ten years, membership has gone from fewer than twenty institutions to 113 (including Imperial College). Joining is actually quite straightforward, and the only formal obligation is to be ready to consider (that last word is important – the final decision always rests with the university) hosting a ‘Cara Fellow’, with a waiver of any fees.

In most cases, approaches for help come to us by e-mail or by mobile phone. Strange as it may seem in view of the all the disasters taking place, many people in even the worst-affected places still seem to be able to establish contact, even if they only have power for a few hours a day or have to travel across their city, at great personal risk, to get connected.

While Cara staff visiting the region have passed out leaflets, most people hear of us by word of mouth - typically from colleagues we are already helping. They tell us their stories, and outline what they want to do. Depending on the stage they are at in their careers, and on whether their existing qualifications are fully recognised abroad, some of them will want to do post-graduate courses, such as a Masters or a PhD. Others will need to find a placement for post-doctoral research. A few may have studied abroad, but many have little idea of how universities really work in other countries, and do not know where they can go.

As applications arrive, we quickly check the applicants’ background, qualifications and references; identify a possible host university and talk to them about the details of the placement, including fee waivers and any financial and in-kind support. We work out what funding we need to contribute from our own resources, and work with the university, which is the visa sponsor, to secure the appropriate visas for the Fellow and, very often, the Fellow’s family. It is worth repeating the key point, that the great majority of Cara Fellows are not ‘refugees’ and come over to the UK on regular Tier 4 (Student) or Tier 5 (Temporary Worker – Government Authorised Exchange) visas, depending on whether they are doing Masters/PhD course or post-doctoral research. A few later find paid work at a university and transition to Tier 2.

The rapid rise in demand over the last two years has inevitably put a big strain on Cara’s resources. Yet, as the crisis in the Middle East has worsened, many universities have stepped up their own engagement spectacularly well, offering not only fee waivers, but also additional support with accommodation and living costs. In some cases, support has been made available for several different people at once, including their families.

It is entirely due to this support that we have been able to help a rapidly-growing number of Fellows, up from 62 at the end of 2014 to 137 at end-2015. In addition, a smaller proportion of people only approach us after reaching the UK - they can never return home and so are seeking to stay in the UK for the long term. Altogether, and counting all dependants, Cara is now working with/supporting some 500 people, the largest number since the 1930s. In the context of our work, and the suffering it reflects, it would be perverse to talk about ‘success’ – but the generous support they are providing to some very deserving people is something of which our university partners should feel proud.

But it’s not over yet (or ever)

Sadly, however, the job is not ‘done’, and probably never will be. On top of the many people we are already helping, we are in touch with at least a hundred more for whom we still need places and funds, and more people are contacting us every week. Fortunately, we are seeing more universities joining the Network. Existing Network members are continuing to come forward with offers, and a number of universities have involved their Development and Alumni Relations Offices who are now raising extra funds to support Cara Fellows. We have had success in placing Fellows at a few universities abroad too - in France, Germany, Australia, Canada and the USA. But there is always more to do. If you are interested in supporting our work in any way, please go to our website, at

“So far I have published two research papers and presented my research findings in two conferences. Your generosity has inspired me to help others and give back to the community … Thank you again Cara for your generosity and support. I promise you I will work very hard and eventually give something back to others.” (Syrian academic, 2015)