A British Haven for Academic Refugees

New York Times, June 8, 2013


London — Think of it as one of Albert Einstein’s other big ideas.

In October 1933, during a visit to Britain, the physicist made a speech in front of 10,000 people at the Albert Hall in London on behalf of a tiny group helping to support Jewish scientists, academics and teachers who had been ousted from their jobs by the Nazi government in Germany. “Let us hope that a historian delivering judgment in some future time when Europe is politically and economically united will be able to say” that “this Continent was saved by its Western nations,” Einstein told the crowd, urging them to contribute to the Academic Assistance Council.

Founded in May 1933 by William Beveridge, head of the London School of Economics, the council eventually rescued hundreds of German scholars. It found them places in British universities so they could continue their research and teaching and, in many cases, provided them with small grants to enable them to survive.

After Einstein’s speech, members of the staff at the London School of Economics agreed to donate a percentage of their salaries to support their refugee colleagues. In later years, the recipients of that aid would go on to win 18 Nobel prizes and 16 would receive knighthoods.

Last Monday the organization, now known as the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, or CARA, marked its 80th year with a ceremony at the House of Lords.

“We’re careful not to use the word ‘celebrate’ since there is nothing to celebrate in the fact that our work remains so necessary,” said Stephen Wordsworth, a former career diplomat who has been the group’s executive director since April 2012.

“When we were founded, people thought this was something that would wind up at the end of the Second World War,” Mr. Wordsworth said. “But for repressive regimes, academics seem to represent a particular threat, as free thinkers and free speakers. Time and again, we’ve seen governments threaten them, persecute them, arrest them and ultimately kill them.”

Mikdam Turkey was a human rights activist in Iraq who also helped the BBC cover the war in his native country. But his work “in secular movements” made Mr. Turkey, who was teaching computer science at universities in Iraq and Jordan, a target for religious extremists, he said in a telephone interview.

In 2008, Mr. Turkey fled Iraq, first to Jordan and then to Britain. He applied for political asylum, which he was granted in 2011. “After I got my refugee status, I was trying to find a way back into employment. CARA was the perfect fit,” he said.

The group found him a career adviser, who helped him to understand the British academic job market. “I also benefited from their contact network,” he said. “And they financed the first year of my Ph.D. at the University of Essex,” in addition to giving him other financial help.

The network of academic connections was important from the beginning.

As Jeremy Seabrook wrote in “The Refuge and the Fortress,” Mr. Beveridge and his co-founder, a Cambridge physics professor named Ernest Rutherford, persuaded 40 of the most prominent academics in Britain to sign the original declaration of support at a time of high unemployment, when helping foreign-born Jews was not exactly a popular cause.

“A word in the right place, the lifting of a telephone, a friendly note” was enough to galvanize others into action, Mr. Seabrook wrote. “It was, no doubt, patrician and elitist, but it was effective.”

It was a personal connection that brought Malcolm Grant, president of University College London and CARA’s current president, into the organization’s ambit.

Dr. Grant was a lecturer in law at the University of Southhampton, as was Albert Sachs. Before being appointed to the South African Constitutional Court by Nelson Mandela, Mr. Sachs was twice driven to seek asylum in Britain durind the apartheid era. The first time was in 1966, after his work as an activist and lawyer representing many of the key figures in the anti-apartheid movement led to his being banned, tortured and imprisoned without trial.

According to Mr. Seabrook’s book, Mr. Sachs received two things from what was then known as the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, CARA’s precursor: “Not just material support to do my PhD, but the immense moral and emotional comfort, which made me feel one of a long tradition of émigrés, who had also been treated with dignity and honor when they came here.”

Mr. Sachs turned to the organization again in 1988, after a car bombing by the South African Bureau of State Security cost him his right arm and the sight in his right eye. “I was comatose. My body was seeking asylum, my brain was barely functioning,” Mr. Sachs said, according to the book. “I had lost an arm, my job, my home, my income.”

Several years later, Mr. Sachs was back in South Africa helping to write the country’s new Constitution; fifteen years after that he wrote the legal opinion legalizing same-sex marriage.

According to Mr. Seabrook, the expectation that refugees in Britain were in the country only temporarily made their situation different from those who went to the United States. Even in the 1930s, while the government agreed “to admit Jewish academic refugees, this was based on the understanding that their sojourn in Britain would be temporary, and indeed, most of the scholars themselves expected to move on to the USA,” he wrote in an e-mail. But the outbreak of war and restrictive U.S. immigration policies meant that many remained in Britain.

Today, immigration is still a contentious topic in British politics. “There is a feeling that not every refugee is a genuine refugee — that some are economic refugees,” Dr. Grant said.

CARA, which receives no government funds, has to tread carefully.

“If people arrive in Britain illegally, we tell them to legalize their status,” Mr. Wordsworth said. “Often the government will put a limit on how long they can stay. But then many people don’t want to stay here permanently,” he said, adding that 20 percent of those assisted by CARA settle in Britain.

Ethel Maqeda, a former instructor at the University of Zimbabwe, fled the country in 2005 after repeated threats and raids on her home by supporters of the government of President Robert Mugabe. “My husband worked for the Movement for Democratic Change,” the main opposition group, she said.

During her first few years in Britain she worked as a cleaner in Sheffield, in northern England. “I wasn’t sure how to find my feet again,” she said. Eventually she took a creative writing course, which led her to apply for a master’s degree. “I was looking for funding online and discovered CARA,” she said. “They gave me a grant to cover some travel expenses, and to buy a computer and some books.”

CARA is helping Ms. Maqeda to complete her doctorate in Zimbabwean literature — a degree she hopes will be useful when she returns home.

“It’s so hard to start over in a new country,” she said. “The fact that CARA believed in me was just so confidence boosting.”

A version of this article appeared in print on June 10, 2013, in The International Herald Tribune