A British foundation created in 1933 to help academics flee Nazi Germany has found a new calling helping Syrian and Iraqi academics escape in the hope that one day they will return and rebuild.
“We work for the future of the countries affected and in some ways, sorry to be grandiose, for the future of the world,” said Stephen Wordsworth, executive director of the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA).
Of the 2,000 academics who were helped to escape the Nazi regime and continue their work abroad, 16 went on to win Nobel prizes.
Currently, the foundation supports 140 academics and their families, many of whom intend to return to their countries of origin once it is safe.
“Without them, it will be pretty difficult to rebuild these countries, without the ability to train lawyers, doctors, architects,” Wordsworth said.
The foundation is affiliated with over 100 British universities and several institutions in Australia, Canada, France and Germany.
It works to convince universities to waive their fees for the academics, and then supports their housing and living costs.
Nadia Faydh, 37, holds a PhD in English and American poetry from the University of Baghdad and was teaching at Al-Mustansiriya University in the Iraqi capital when she encountered intimidation by Shiite militias.
“They started to accuse me of things, which I’m not, and to be accused of such things is kind of a disgrace for women and for anyone in Iraq… like an atheist. If you are accused as an atheist, it means that you deserve death,” Faydh, who wore a brightly-coloured veil, said in an interview in London.
“They know how to hurt people. My major concern is my family. I don’t want to put my family in danger. I can’t change myself, I will always speak my mind so the only option was to leave.”
CARA helped Faydh secure a position as a research associate at King’s College London.
About 450 academics have been deliberately targeted and murdered in Iraq since 2003, according to Wordsworth.
“They are seen as people who will ask difficult questions,” Wordsworth said. “They are people seen as a threat and so they need to be eradicated so they are murdered.”
Muhammad and his wife Joury, both teachers at a university in Damascus, found themselves under scrutiny by both religious extremists who suspected them of being faithful to President Bashar Al-Assad and by regime loyalists.
“In time of war, education becomes politicised. The government was interfering in every aspect of the educational process,” Muhammad said in a phone interview from Glasgow where he and his wife are now studying.
Executive director of the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA)
“We were questioned by secret police and you have to show you are a true supporter of your government. It was unbearable.”
CARA, which has an annual budget of £700,000 ($1 million, 900,000 euros), receives three to five new requests for help each week, three-quarters of them from Syria.
The requests are increasingly hard to meet, as the foundation’s funds are already allocated.
In response, the foundation has asked universities for increased help, for example by providing accommodation.
Individual donations increased with media coverage of the beheading of the famed Syrian archeologist Khaled al-Asaad, who was the chief of antiquities in the ancient site of Palmyra for 50 years.
Five full-time employees helped by interns work at the headquarters of the organisation at London’s South Bank University.
One of them, Alastair Lomas, is busy trying to help a Syrian academic with a French doctorate who is afraid of being summoned for military service.
“Until recently, academics were exempt,” Lomas said.
“He has a wife and two children so we are looking for funding that will cover both the academic, so he can continue his research, but also that his wife and children can get out.”