Friends in need: the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics and Scholars at Risk help to rebuild lives

November 28, 2010

“Not much to celebrate at the moment in Baghdad,” May Witwit emailed Bee Rowlatt on 7 December 2006.

“A threat has reached university teachers and students…warning them to stop attending lectures or be classified as enemies and as followers [of the Shia of Iran].”

Ms Witwit was working as a lecturer in English literature at the University of Baghdad, and Ms Rowlatt as a journalist for the BBC World Service.

As the situation in Iraq grew progressively more dangerous, they began to discuss how Ms Witwit and her husband, Ali, could leave.

Ms Rowlatt then contacted the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (Cara), which was set up in 1933 to help endangered academics in Nazi Germany.

In light of the anarchy and violence that followed the US-led occupation of Iraq in 2003, Cara shifted established programmes to build academic capital on the ground in Iraq, as well as helping at-risk academics find safety in the UK.

In the case of Ms Witwit, Cara arranged for her to come to England with her husband on a student visa and the University of Bedfordshire agreed to fund her PhD.

A wider context for such issues was provided by a recent debate at the London School of Economics, titled Silencing the Classroom: Persecuted Academics Share Their Experiences.

Mina Al-Lami, a visiting Fellow at LSE’s department of media and communications, offered a vivid account of what she had lived through in Iraq.

Before the occupation, Ms Al-Lami worked for two years as a junior academic at Baghdad. After a brief period of optimism in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s fall, anarchy, looting and sectarian tensions soon came to the surface.

By 2005, Ms Al-Lami recalled, it was more or less essential for women to wear the veil. Academics had a particularly hard time.

“Universities became very politicised,” said Ms Al-Lami. “Academics were intimidated by the newly gained power of their students – it became dangerous to express your opinion or to fail anybody. At least 400 were killed or sent a bullet in an envelope.”

Her father, a distinguished entomologist, was forced out of his job.

Worse was to come. Ms Al-Lami’s brother, a 22-year-old student in his final year, was killed after he was seen talking to an American soldier.

All this left her with “a huge sense of betrayal by my people”.

She applied for and won a British Council scholarship to study for a single-year master’s in international development at the University of Manchester, then secured a post as a research associate at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Having started a study of Islamic extremism that she was determined to continue, she then sought help from the Scholars at Risk network based at New York University, which directed her to its partner body at LSE.

Ms Al-Lami said she still hopes that one day she will be able to return to Iraq “to reach people who are vulnerable to extreme ideology”.

“I’ve seen relatives and acquaintances embracing thoughts I found shocking,” she said. “I just want to grab them, shake them and say: ‘What’s wrong with you?’”


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