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Academic rescue

Stephen Wordsworth reflects on why supporting vulnerable academics supports us all

Ninety years ago, the Nazi regime passed a law banning ‘non-Aryans’ from the public sector, including employment at universities. Many prominent German academics were dismissed.

In response, 41 leading academics, scientists and public figures in the UK set up the Academic Assistance Council, an organisation that, after several name changes, is now called Cara, the Council for At-Risk Academics.

This time of year can be a particularly hard one for the thousands of academics who have been forced by war, repression or prejudice to abandon jobs and homes to seek safety elsewhere. They have frequently travelled with close family members but little else—except for the knowledge and skills they have patiently acquired and are desperate to use and develop further.

Some already have connections, but many do not. Without support, their talents and the contribution that they hoped to make to their fields of study and to society as a whole would be lost.

General good

Our Founding Statement was launched from the Rooms of the Royal Society, then in Burlington House, where space had been found in the attic. It defined the organisation’s mission as ‘the relief of suffering and the defence of learning and science’—rescuing individuals but also working to ensure their skills could be preserved and developed further, for the good of all.

Between 1933 and 1939, the new organisation raised £100,000, some £5 million today, and used it to support more than 1,500 academics while they found new posts in the UK or in other countries where they and their families would be safe. Sixteen went on to win Nobel Prizes, 18 were knighted, and more than 100 became Fellows of the Royal Society or the British Academy. Their contribution to British scientific, intellectual and cultural life was enormous.

The task of helping today’s displaced academics is huge. The Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan in 2021 was particularly challenging for the team working in our Fellowship Programme, the modern-day version of its original 1930s rescue mission.

With a lot of hard work, we got a group of Afghan academics and their families onto the Home Office’s evacuation list, but in the chaos at Kabul airport none of them made it onto a UK flight. In the days that followed, the team worked with ever-growing numbers of academics who had enjoyed years of close cooperation with Western colleagues and were now terrified they would be seen as traitors and frantically hoped we could find them a way out.

Coping with crisis

The next crisis broke just months later, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The UK government made it relatively easy for Ukrainians to travel to the UK by introducing its Homes for Ukraine and Ukraine Family visa schemes. Most men of military age had to stay to help defend their country, but we received many approaches from women academics, often with children.

Meanwhile, we continued to receive applications from many other parts of the world too, in particular the Middle East; the total number surged from 160 in 2020-21 to 1,105 in 2021-22. And 2023 has brought new crises, including many applications from Sudanese academics who have seen their universities destroyed, and also the first appeals for help from Gaza.

Our Enquiries and New Fellows teams work their way quickly through all the applications we receive, decide which we can take forward, and work with the applicants to help them take up places offered by our partners. Each team handles between 80 and 90 cases at a time. Our Active Fellows team takes over responsibility for Fellows once they arrive and settle in, monitoring their progress and providing wide-ranging support.

Most Fellows come on placements for two years or longer, usually with their families. We started 2023 with 115 Active Fellows and now have 175, with 40 more expected to arrive soon. Since March 2022 we have also been working with the British Academy and the other national academies on the Researchers at Risk programme for Ukraine-based academics and now administer the programme awards payments for nearly 180 grantees. We have been able to take on some additional staff to help us cope with all this, but the pressure is unrelenting.

Meanwhile, our Syria Programme has been continuing its work with around 200 Syrian academics in exile in the region, mostly in south-eastern Turkey. For some weeks in early 2023, this work was severely disrupted by devastating earthquakes that left many of them and their families destitute and homeless.

But our university partners and many individuals responded generously to our appeal, contributing over £140,000 in just a few weeks. With some funding from our reserves, we were able to provide four rounds of emergency support for the most seriously affected, until the wider relief efforts kicked in.

Donors and partners

None of this work would be possible without the generous support of donors and of our 135 University and Research Network partners. Many partners have increased the number of places they are offering for Cara Fellowships and have been setting up multi-year funding ‘pots’ for Cara Fellows—a very positive trend, since our Fellowship commitments are usually multi-year—and support our Syria Programme in various ways too. Network partners are also the visa sponsors for our Fellows, and we work closely with our partners and Fellows throughout the visa process. Thanks to this cooperation, our Fellows have had a 100 per cent UK visa success rate in recent years.

We can already see that there will be much to do in 2024, with appeals for help continuing to arrive from around the world. We currently have Active Fellows from 17 countries, and the situation in and around Israel and Palestine is a particular worry.

But, with our partners’ and donors’ support, we know we can change lives for the better. People are now safe and productive again, who might otherwise have been locked up, injured, even killed, and every hosting is very much a two-way process. Our Fellows get support but they also share with their hosts all their own skills and experience. It lays the foundations for longer-term personal and institutional partnerships when, as we all hope, our Fellows can one day return home to help rebuild better, safer societies.

Stephen Wordsworth is executive director of Cara, the Council for At-Risk Academics. You can donate here to support Cara’s work.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe