Covid places new obstacles in way of academic refugees

Charity helped Iraqi researcher to escape aftermath of Islamic State terror to fulfil his dream of studying for a PhD in safety

March 7, 2021
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Even after it was liberated from ISIS, levels of intimidation and violence remained very high in Mosulamined

The Covid crisis has worsened, but also distracted attention from, the plight of thousands of academics facing persecution around the world.

“Our work is naturally challenging,” said Stephen Wordsworth, executive director of the UK-based Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara), which was set up to help scholars escape Nazi persecution in 1933 and has been rescuing those facing harassment and violence ever since. “But this pandemic has thrown up exceptional obstacles. And this came at a time when Cara was already receiving its highest number of appeals for help since the 1930s.”

Take the case of the Iraqi researcher Salam Dawood (not his real name). Even before Islamic State took over the city of Mosul in June 2014, he knew what to expect. He was doing a master’s in orthodontics at the University of Mosul and was not politically active, although his father had posted a few comments on Facebook. Yet in February that year they had received a signed letter from IS asking them to call a mobile number. When they ignored this, they received another letter again telling them to make contact and saying it was a last warning. Two days later, there was an explosion at the front door of the house where Mr Dawood was living with his parents and pregnant wife.

“IS made money by threatening doctors and merchants,” he recalled. “A doctor who lived in the same area also ignored them and was killed. His mother heard bullets and found his dead body in the street.”

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Once IS took over Mosul, Mr Dawood went on, “the university closed down and moved to an alternative site between Duhok and Kirkuk. IS took my home, my [dental] clinic and my car...They killed my uncle, a professor of civil engineering at the university, and my cousin, because he spoke up against their ideas. They also kidnapped two other uncles and put them in jail for about two months.”

Soon after IS gained control, therefore, Mr Dawood’s immediate family moved to the Kurdistani city of Duhok, about 45 miles from Mosul and “relatively safe”. He completed his master’s in 2015 and found a teaching position in the transplanted university until Mosul was liberated in 2017.

Although “liberation” was greeted with optimism, it soon proved to have solved little. “The poverty, ignorance and militias were still in Mosul,” explained Mr Dawood. “Even now, there are intimidation and explosions.” The university returned to Mosul but because the family home was destroyed they continued living in Duhok so he had a long and dangerous journey to work. He was also unhappy that many of his colleagues had been IS supporters, who had laid low briefly before going back to their jobs.

By the end of 2017, then, Mr Dawood was keen to leave Iraq but did not know how to do so. It was then that a friend told him about Cara. After contacting them online, he was helped to put together a proposal for a PhD focused on looking at diagnosing dental problems by taking cells from teeth and measuring their DNA and RNA. By the end of 2019, the University of Birmingham had expressed an interest in hosting him.

Yet nothing is easy in an era of Covid. By March 2020, Mr Dawood reported, there was “a very strict lockdown in Iraq, so you couldn’t travel from city to city”. Iraqis still need to take a tuberculosis test to obtain a UK visa, despite the fact that all the recognised centres in the country were then closed. Fortunately, Cara was able to mobilise contacts at UK Visas and Immigration to facilitate the necessary tests, enabling Mr Dawood to fly to the UK in December.

The charity has had to deal with similar Covid-related challenges in offering safe havens to 10 more scholars from Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Turkey. A 38-year-old Syrian has already reached the UK to take up a PhD, despite having contracted coronavirus just before setting out on her journey via Lebanon. The rest are due to arrive and take up places at leading institutions, including the University of Oxford, King’s College London and Durham University, during the early months of 2021.

Many have faced appalling suffering. Two Yemenis, for example, were forced to teach unpaid under slave-like conditions in universities controlled by rebel forces. Yet due to Cara’s intervention, the 10 scholars should soon be able to echo Mr Dawood’s words and say, “The dream has come true: to study for a PhD while my family is safe.”

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