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by Rebecca McQuillan
07 June 2021
New Scots: academics rescued from war-torn countries are bringing their valuable expertise to Scotland

Syrian security personnel and civilians gather at the site where two explosions rocked the University of Aleppo in 2013. At least 15 people were killed and dozens wounded. Zaher was on campus as a student at the time, taking an exam which was interrupted by the blast ©Alamy

New Scots: academics rescued from war-torn countries are bringing their valuable expertise to Scotland

Arriving in Scotland, Yemeni academic Mohsen entered a world that was different from the one he’d left behind in some unexpected ways.

The postdoctoral researcher was amazed by the lush scenery of his adopted home – and the tap water. 

Even now, more than a year later, Mohsen is awestruck by the water: “That was something that was a surprise for me, that I can drink the tap water, which is very delicious,” he explains enthusiastically by video link from his home. “In my country you have to boil the water if you want to drink it.”

Scottish tap water is truly a wonder to someone coming from a nation where basic infrastructure has collapsed.

But it’s the peace Mohsen has found here that transcends all other considerations. For the first time in years, he and his family have been able to live in the absence of fear.

Yemen has been in tumult for decades due to terrorist attacks, insurgencies and now a dragging conflict in which the official government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, has been fighting Shi’a rebels known as the Houthis. The war, which began in 2014, has created what is now the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Eighty per cent of the Yemeni population needs humanitarian assistance, according to the UN.

The Saudi-led blockade of Yemen, ostensibly to stop armaments from Iran, has significantly contributed to food scarcity and pushed up the cost of essentials. Bombing raids continue.

Many healthcare facilities are out of action and millions lack adequate sanitation, contributing to the largest cholera outbreak ever recorded.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs declared in December that the war had caused an estimated 233,000 deaths, including 131,000 from indirect causes such as starvation, inadequate health services and infrastructure. Save the Children estimate that 85,000 children under five may have died of extreme hunger in the 42 months to October 2018.

The UK government has been strongly criticised for cutting its aid budget to Yemen by half, with the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calling the decision “a death sentence”.
Mohsen (not his real name) came to the UK with the help of the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara).

The low-profile apolitical UK charity, which rescues academics from war, persecution and mortal danger, was founded in 1933 in response to the expulsion of academics from German universities on racial grounds. Its work was championed by Albert Einstein. 

It is currently experiencing the highest ever demand for help in its 88-year history.
Mohsen is one of 14 academics currently living in Scotland brought here by the charity. 

Now researching the involvement of the immune system on the metastasis of cancer, Mohsen was working at a Yemeni university when the war began.

Air raids were a regular occurrence in the area where he lived with his family. 

The explosions were terrifying for his young children, who would start screaming when the bombs started dropping.

He said: “We used to gather all in one room, in the living room, the safest room. Every day we did not expect to live until the next day.”

A raid on a house 200m away from Mohsen’s home sent rocks flying in all directions. One piece of masonry a foot wide hit his car, parked outside his house, shattering the back windscreen. Luckily no one was nearby at the time.

Mohsen says: “You just lost every hope, every plan in your mind, so it was very hard. You don’t think about anything other than how to stay alive. 

“The most important thing is your children. It’s your responsibility to protect them from danger, from risks, and then you find yourself unable to protect them, and you just lose your role.”

Mohsen notes that because of the breakdown of normal life, many people in Yemen don’t have salaries any more. “People are starving, they have lost hope. And it’s very difficult to live without hope.”

Mohsen was told about Cara by a relative who was studying abroad. He got in touch to see if the charity could help him and they did. Cara worked with Mohsen closely for months, trying to help him find a position that suited his area of expertise.  

He said: “Cara was something that gave me hope again. I started to think positive. I thought, there is some light coming from the UK, from Scotland, though I didn’t know at the beginning it would be Scotland.”

Mohsen finally had an offer of employment from an academic in Glasgow. He went to Cairo to get visas for himself and his two daughters, and Cara both helped him fill in the application correctly and paid for the visa.

He came to Glasgow on his own but was joined in September last year by his wife and two of his children (his eldest daughter having started university in another country). His young son and teenage daughter now attend Scottish schools and the family finally feels settled.

Cara arranged English classes for Mohsen, who now speaks the language near-fluently, and helped prepare for the arrival of his family. The charity also provided workshops on how British universities work and is supporting Mohsen applying for jobs.

Above all, hope has returned. Mohsen likes his adopted home. “You don’t feel like a foreigner,” he concludes.

The academics that Cara brings to Scotland are given so-called “sanctuary” or “humanitarian” scholarships, paid for by the universities and sometimes topped up by Cara, and they are also given a fee waiver. They are not refugees but come to the UK on academic visas. Part of Cara’s job is to match the expertise of the academic to the needs of the institution. 

Scottish universities have maintained their sanctuary scholarships in spite of funding challenges caused by the COVID crisis and Brexit, and 15 out of 19 Scottish higher education institutions are involved with the charity. 

This is a humanitarian effort, but also echoes the emphasis universities place on attracting international talent, a priority that was underlined during the Holyrood election campaign when Universities Scotland, the representative body for Scottish higher education, called on the Scottish government to fund a new set of international scholarships to keep Scotland accessible in the post-Brexit world. Universities want at least £7m to be committed annually to attract talent.

Cara’s work is a “win-win” for Scottish institutions, says Scott McQuarrie, Cara’s Scotland regional manager. “It’s getting the output for the institution and you’re getting a safe and secure environment for the academic; everyone’s happy.” 

Zaher al Bakour, from Aleppo in Syria, was helped by Cara to come to Aberdeen University.

His experiences while in Aleppo were harrowing and make for difficult reading. He narrowly escaped a sniper’s bullet, as well as deadly barrel bombs.

Zaher says: “When I used to go to university, I used to have to pass one street that was under the control of snipers who used to shoot people in the street. You used to have to run so you didn’t get caught. 

“One night I was coming back home and the sniper started shooting, when I was on the street.

“He got a lamppost next to me. So I jumped into a building, hiding, waiting.” Once the shots stopped, he emerged and ran home.

Of that incident, he says: “It never leaves. It’s something that you feel is stuck to your memory.

“But it makes me stronger most of the time. I handle stress in a different way, always compare it to that situation.”

On another occasion, he and his fellow students had to hide under their desks during an exam.

The exam wasn’t even abandoned – they were just given an extra 10 minutes to complete it.

But afterwards, the class went outside to be met with a deeply distressing site of a student accommodation block destroyed. It had been in use by displaced families who didn’t have anywhere else to live. “You could see the whole front wall of the building, all of that was just vanished and you could see people’s possessions everywhere. 

“Every student in Aleppo who graduated from 2013 remembers that, everyone.”

Zaher finished his undergraduate degree in pharmacology and began a Masters while working at a pharmaceutical company in another part of Aleppo. But he knew that when that finished he would be forced to do military service – unless he could continue his studies abroad.

To that end, he immediately started working on his schoolboy English. After his shift each day, he would use a set of CDs to work on his language skills, starting with beginners’ English and progressing through intermediate, advanced and upper advanced.

While doing this, he lived under the constant threat of bomb attack.

One morning he woke to a huge explosion. A warehouse had been hit with a barrel bomb, dropped from a helicopter, and was on fire. Zaher and his friends went outside and fire engines started to appear.

As soon as the helicopter saw a crowd gathering, it wheeled round and dropped another bomb.
Zaher and his friends, as unwilling experts in barrel bombs, knew they had 20 seconds to take cover. Luckily it was enough.

At night, they would work out which walls of their room would most likely be destroyed in a raid, depending on which direction the helicopters were coming from. These calculations determined which part of the room they would (try to) sleep in. 

Throughout it all, Zaher kept applying for jobs overseas, to no avail – until he found Cara. With a new academic year approaching, the charity urged him to take a test in academic English, with only 15 days to prepare. 

Candidates normally prepared for a year and Zaher had no teacher, so didn’t like his chances. “The only option I had was having a mirror in front of me and just speaking to myself.”

He went to Lebanon for the test and the examiner was the first person he had ever spoken to in English. 

But against the odds, he passed and that pass secured his future: “The University of Aberdeen offered me a Masters in pharmacology with a full scholarship,” he explains. “I was speaking to Cara and I said, ‘is that real? Are you confident that is going to happen?’ And they said ‘yes, you have to go in and book your accommodation online’. I said ‘are you serious?’ I couldn’t believe it was happening. And they said: ‘It’s happening.’”

To add to his joy, Zaher’s wife was able to join him, the couple having married earlier that year.

Zaher was awarded the prize for best student in his class after his first year and is now well into his PhD. He even speaks warmly of Aberdeen’s North Sea breeze.

One day, if there is peace, the Cara fellows might be able to return to their home countries and help rebuild. 

In the mean time, they contribute at a high level to Scotland’s academic research effort and scientific advancement. Mohsen is looking for a job for when he finishes his post-doc and Zaher is full of enthusiasm about his PhD. 

“Coming here, that shift, is just unimaginable,” says Zaher. “You’re going from a very, very low stage where you have no options, no dreams, no anything, into a place where now you can have dreams. 

“You can start working on them – you can achieve them.”  •

Read the most recent article written by Rebecca McQuillan - Power of Scotland: Can one small nation lead the global fight against climate change?

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