NEXT week is the 10th anniversary of the start of the Syrian War…a tragic, multi-sided and seemingly unending conflict.
It started with demonstrations calling for reform from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and evolved into an insurgency which is now a violent conflict pursued by a Syrian government determined to crush any opposition, which has drawn in a mix of domestic and foreign allies and opponents.
For many thousands of innocent people, the result has been turmoil, destruction, persecution and death. Bringing a lasting end to this conflict continues to elude even the most well-meaning of the many powers involved.
Among those at particularly high risk in Syria are the academic community, whose high local profile often makes them targets for kidnapping, violence, or even murder.
Last month (February 2021), there was a brutal reminder of this when the Syrian authorities found and identified the body of renowned archaeologist Dr. Khaled al-Assad, who, as Head of Antiquities in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, was tortured and beheaded by ISIS in 2015. He was 82. For over 50 years, he had overseen the discovery and excavation of Syria’s archaeological heritage, a key part of the country’s cultural identity.
The Syria Programme
Against this background, a little-known UK-based charity, Cara (the Council for At-Risk Academics), founded almost 90 years ago as a lifeline to academics at risk in Nazi Germany, is delivering its ‘Syria Programme,’ dedicated to enabling exiled, displaced and at-risk Syrian academics to continue their work and research through a unique support collaboration with top academics in the UK.
Now in its fifth year, the Syria Programme is bringing together over 200 Syrian academics, most of them living in exile in Turkey, and hundreds of academic volunteers at leading UK universities to engage with an ever-widening range of training and research opportunities. Through Cara’s programme, their achievements have been so widely recognised that research teams at many of the leading UK universities are now actively recruiting them to be partners in their own research projects, highlighting the importance of the Syrian participants’ local knowledge experience and connections.
Cara’s aim is to help preserve and sustain the very best of Syria’s once well-developed higher education system by ensuring that Syria’s displaced academics can continue to enhance their skills and to contribute before eventually returning to Syria to make a constructive and stabilising contribution to the rebuilding of their country.
Kate Robertson, who developed, designed and launched Cara’s Syria Programme, commented:
“Thousands of academics in Syria have been displaced and many killed since the outbreak of conflict in March 2011. So much accumulated knowledge risks being lost forever. Many international aid organisations work to support exiled students, but none other than Cara addresses the question of how to sustain their displaced teachers in the region. Yet how can you rebuild higher education successfully without a solid core of academics, who embody the best of their country’s traditions of education, culture and science, and can also train the next generation?
“Cara is the only organisation working in this way to strengthen and connect Syria’s displaced academics with UK-based colleagues, enabling their continued academic engagement and contribution as a group that is vital to the future of Syria. Our Programme owes an enormous debt of gratitude to an extraordinary ‘army’ of volunteers from universities across the UK and beyond, who, through Cara’s Syria Programme, give freely so much of their time and expertise in solidarity with their Syrian colleagues.
“We owe it to Syria and the wider world to ensure that the skills and unique local knowledge and experience of Syria’s academics are not wasted, for the good of their country, the region and us all.”