Dr Leila Alieva at St Antony's College, Oxford, where she is now a researcher
By Olivia Gordon
Dr Leila Alieva is gazing out of the window at St Antony’s College onto a peaceful Oxford scene of Victorian houses on a rainy afternoon. ‘This is a wonderful place,’ she says. But her thoughts are thousands of miles away, with her family, friends and colleagues in Azerbaijan.
After a government crackdown in 2014, academics, journalists and NGO activists there started to be arrested. Alieva, a specialist in political science and international relations who ran an independent think tank in Baku, saw ‘one after the other’ her colleagues being given prison sentences of up to eight years; their health, she says, has been destroyed in prison.
Alieva had to flee her country in a hurry, and within two months she found herself at Oxford. Friends had told her about Cara (cara1933.org), the Council for At-Risk Academics, a remarkable British charity which, since its foundation in 1933, has been a lifeline for scholars in countries where their freedom is threatened. Cara, which has long had a relationship with Oxford, paid for Alieva’s flights and, together with St Antony’s and another sponsor, arranged for a fully funded two-year research position at St Antony’s as an academic visitor. Dr Alieva left her home in Azerbaijan and was helped over to Oxford by the Council for At-Risk Academics, which works with the University
Cara itself was established (as the Academic Assistance Council, later the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning) by the coming together of many of the leading academics of the day, including a number of heads of Oxford colleges, many of whom would have had in recent memory Oxford’s welcome of numerous Belgian refugees during the First World War.
Archives held in the Bodleian Library show that in the 1930s, several meetings were held in Oxford to appeal for funds for academic refugees. Then, as now, finding support was politically complicated. On Saturday 13 November 1937, an international meeting was convened by Sir William Beveridge at his Master’s Lodgings at University College. The minutes show that Beveridge ‘hoped that the contrast between the beauty of Oxford and the ugliness of the fate of displaced scholars would inspire all to continued efforts on behalf of their unfortunate colleagues.’
Beveridge’s ambition found recent echo in the Principal of Hertford College, the economist Will Hutton, a campaigner for more action within the collegiate University. Having drawn a stark contrast between German generosity and British stinginess on the whole question of human dignity and helping immigrants, Hutton ended one of his popular Guardian columns last summer: ‘Britain, within limits, needs to be as open as possible, with a Europe similarly open, and it needs to share the costs. The alternative is too dark to contemplate.’ For ‘Britain’ you could substitute ‘Oxford’ or ‘international scholarly community’.
The short-term result – not forgetting the University’s own Refugee Studies Centre, the first of its kind when founded in 1982, and since then a staunch advocate of migrant interests – is that Oxford’s collaboration with Cara has been beefed up, notes Cara Director Stephen Wordsworth, CMG, LVO. He has been working with Ruth Kinahan, from the University’s Human Resources Department, to establish a central point of contact and process for at-risk scholars who might be considered by Oxford, dependent partly on other criteria such as academic achievement and fit. Wordsworth says, ‘The heads of various colleges have come together and discussed what they’ll be able to do amongst themselves and with the University authorities.’
Sushila Dhall (St Hilda's, 1986), who works as a psychotherapist at Refugee Resource in Oxford
Kinahan adds: ‘There’s a strong feeling in the University that we should be doing more to help people. One thing I’m doing is coordinating the colleges’ responses, compiling a list of what they can offer.’
Since October 2014, Oxford has welcomed four Cara scholars. Apart from Alieva, there are three Syrian academics; two men and a woman, their names protected. They represent a range of disciplines, with two scientists and one specialist in the humanities. Each is hosted by a college, and supported both academically and practically. All are settling in well, Kinahan reports – ‘Being here is making a real difference to them.’ Oxford is already considering a new batch of Cara applicants. At present, enquiries via Cara are ‘overwhelmingly from Syria’, Wordsworth says, but the hope is that academics will come to Oxford in future from other countries like Zimbabwe. ‘Given Oxford’s high standards, we’re not going to see hundreds coming, but I hope we will have tens in the not-too-distant future,’ he adds.
‘Every day here is a present,’ Alieva says, a year into her stay. ‘It’s such great luck compared to what my colleagues have gone through.’
Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the University's most famous émigré alumni. As leader of the National League for Democracy in Myanmar she said: 'Throughout the years when I was struggling for human rights in Burma, I felt I was doing something of which my old university would have approved'
It is not always straightforward. Other international academics from the US or Europe have told Alieva they sometimes feel lonely or isolated at Oxford, a point reiterated by alumna Sushila Dhall [St Hilda’s, 1986] who works as a psychotherapist for refugees and asylum seekers at the Oxford charity Refugee Resource, which was launched in 1999 by Amanda Webb Johnson, formerly of the University’s Refugee Studies Centre.
Dhall’s clients typically have no relationship to the University, but find themselves living in the city. But they illustrate a broadly inconvenient truth, that it is very difficult to find your feet quickly and thrive in a foreign country, especially if trauma resides in recent memory. ‘Refugees are largely an invisible group in Oxford [the City]. And that’s also true in Oxford University,’ says Dhall. Over the past 12 years Refugee Resource has worked with four Oxford University students – two undergraduates, one master’s student and one doctoral student. No two stories are the same, but to give an example of one, ‘K’, her family had fled to Britain from Bosnia when she was a child. K had witnessed massacres, children being killed in front of their parents and her older brother being dragged away and shot. At 17, suffering depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, she sought help from Refugee Resource. With specialist counselling from the charity, K found equilibrium, and went on to apply successfully to read Physics at the University.
Dhall says: ‘Our experience is that a lot of good comes from it [displaced students studying at Oxford], but it’s a hard experience. People have felt alienated, isolated; their work is appreciated but their whole self is not somehow part of the picture. If someone is a refugee, they have often been highly traumatised, but at Oxford, you’re expected to do the work.’
Thaís Roque (right) and fellow supporters of the Oxford Students Refugee Campaign
New inspiration has come recently, as it so often does, from existing students, in this case international students at Oxford. Launched last October, a new campaign for Oxford scholarships for students-at-risk is being spearheaded by biomedical engineering DPhil candidate Thaís Roque (Magdalen, 2013). Roque, from Brazil, has an Oxford-Bellhouse graduate scholarship, without which she wouldn’t be here, and which, she says, has made her appreciate how life-changing a scholarship can be. She got the idea for the Oxford Students Refugee Campaign when she ‘noticed how everyone shares pictures [of refugees] and feels bad but doesn’t take any action. I had this feeling we had to do something and from my point of view the University was failing to address the current crisis, but we do have a history of helping at-risk academics. There’s nothing sadder than a talent that’s been wasted.’
Encouraged by fellows including Emeritus Fellow Bernard Sufrin of Worcester, Professor Sally Mapstone, the University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, and Helena Kennedy, Baroness Kennedy, QC, Principal of Mansfield College, Roque launched her campaign last October. Her aim is to get every Oxford student to contribute £1 a month for the next two years to fund a merit-based scholarship fund for at-risk students, which she hopes will raise £260,000 a year. This will be divided between students who will get £30,000 each to cover the cost of their Oxford education and their living expenses. Roque hopes that the University’s development office will match this with external donations from alumni and friends, to make the fund sustainable. At the moment the University is working with Roque to set up the fund.
Roque’s campaign has snowballed, with 15 professors and fellows contacting her in the first week to offer support, 700 freshers signing up at the freshers’ fair, the student union coming on board and individual colleges now pledging their help one after the other. The University administration is working with the campaign to iron out the process behind the pledge. ‘The only way we can fight ISIS is with education,’ Roque believes. ‘Oxford has a great network and infrastructure which can contribute and help train medics and engineers to reconstruct their own societies when they return home.’
One of the issues is the application process from within a warzone. Manar Marzouk (Brasenose, 2015) is a Syrian master’s student who was offered a place at Oxford. She told the University she couldn’t afford to come, and was interviewed for the Eve Jones Scholarship. ‘I was in Damascus with mortars landing in front of me; my house was twice hit by a mortar. The day [the scholarship] interviewed me on Skype I was distressed, with bombs all around me. I saw these four lovely ladies and they made me feel a certain peace.’ War-torn Syria, where most applications for sanctuary have come from over the past few years
With a goal of working in the humanitarian field, Marzouk is studying International Health and Tropical Medicine at the Nuffield Department of Medicine. Like Alieva, Marzouk feels both extraordinarily fortunate to be at Oxford, yet remains full of sadness for what she has left behind. She wanted to stay in Syria, but says: ‘I reached a point where I couldn’t do more without risking my life. We used to have a good academic system in Syria but [now] if you want to openly explore ideas it’s difficult.’ She was daunted at the prospect of Oxford, but has found it humane. ‘Oxford is not about the name – when you get inside, you realise there are normal people, very humble, just nice people.’ She has made friends and describes her master’s programme with 18 people from 14 countries as ‘like a family – it’s an amazing opportunity. I feel the space to say whatever I want and I find support.’
‘Higher education is one international network these days,’ says Wordsworth, ‘and all universities benefit from overseas students and faculty.’ The positive impact of welcoming at-risk scholars is significant not only to the rescued, but to the University and wider world. As Marzouk puts it, ‘As much as the University is enriching us, we can enrich it.’
But getting this message across in the face of the Daily Mail and the media obsession with UKIP is difficult. Dr Liz Peretz, an Associate Fellow of the Department of Social Policy and Intervention, recently spoke of how in Oxford in 1914, the University welcomed, housed and gave research facilities to around 20 Belgian academics with their families, as well as Belgian students. Letters poured in with offers of hospitality, Merton and New College offered housing while St John’s gave a hall and teacher to the children. Today, Peretz believes, ‘People want to help but feel helpless, powerless; it’s going against the grain of the media and statutory bodies
– so helpers feel they’re struggling upstream.’
Current initiatives raise a lot of goodwill and hope, but time will tell if the University can live up to its historical record of generosity in this area of need.
Images: Oxford University Images, John Cairns, Shutterstock
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