Academic refugees put strain on council

September 9, 2005

It is probably a safe bet that Marie Inamahoro (not her real name) is the only medic living in her grim, graffiti-daubed council tower block in Glasgow's notorious Gorbals area.

It is hardly a situation a UK academic would expect to find herself in, but Dr Inamahoro, a refugee who was forced to flee her native Burundi with her baby son or face death, allows herself only one mild grumble.

"I don't like the weather. But I'm getting used to it. I have no choice," she said.

She is just one of the thousands of academic refugees helped by the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics over the years. Yet the number of academics seeking asylum has increased to the point where the needs of refugees now outstrip the council's resources.

Cara will outline its work at the Universities UK annual conference next week and will appeal to institutional heads to do more to help refugees by offering scholarships and fee waivers.

It will also announce a major new partnership with the Scholars at Risk Network based at New York University and will invite UK universities to send representatives to the network's launch meeting on November 11.

Dr Inamahoro's experience of fleeing Burundi, where civil war between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority has raged for most of the past 40 years, is an excellent example of the difference that Cara can make to the lives of overseas academics.

She is reluctant to go into details about her personal experiences, revealing simply that she has few family members left and that she had to leave.

"It was really the only option to survive. I was going to be killed."

She came to Glasgow as an asylum seeker two years ago, winning refugee status after six months. She was a medical graduate who had held a joint academic and clinical appointment. She admits it is unusual for a Burundian woman to progress so far: many girls are kept at home after completing primary school to carry out domestic chores.

Dr Inamahoro came from a rural area, but the local priest encouraged her parents to educate their children and she proved to be an academic high-flyer.

After she graduated, she became active in schemes to combat HIV/Aids, but felt hampered by her faculty's lack of public health expertise. "I always felt there was a gap in my knowledge that stopped me running things the way I wanted."

Last autumn, thanks to a loan from Scottish friends, she began a masters course in public health at Glasgow University.

But childcare pressures took their toll and, in November, she was about to drop out when she discovered Cara during an web search. It was several more months before Cara could pay her fees, assist with childcare and travel expenses, and provide her with a computer.

"But as soon as I got in touch with them, I felt I had hope. They are very good people. I can't find the words to tell you how I feel about them."

She has just submitted her dissertation on access to HIV testing in the city and is beginning to investigate job opportunities.

"My ambition is to be of help, to do good work with what I've learnt and to work in the field I'm qualified in," she says. "I don't think I will ever go back to Burundi. I need to move on from the past and do something of benefit for the society where I'm now living."

She hopes Cara will win more support from the academic community. "I think there must be many people like me who need help from Cara, who have a good academic background and can start new work after further university study."

Cara has helped nearly 5,600 refugee academics since its launch in 1933: 18 have become Nobel laureates and 140 have joined the Royal Society or the British Academy.

John Ashworth, Cara's president, said that UK universities would benefit by supporting the new network.

He said: "Scholars who have been forced to flee their universities bring with them unique first-hand experience of complex social and political situations, as well as direct experience of their university systems."

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