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Charity that helped academics flee Nazis aids Syrians and Iraqis
London (AFP) Sept 16, 2015

From Damascus to Glasgow: Syrian academics' escape to freedom
London (AFP) Sept 16, 2015 - Hounded by both religious extremists and state officials at the Syrian university where they were teaching, Muhammad and Joury left on a journey helped by a British charity that has taken them to Scotland.

The husband and wife spent more than two years wandering across the Middle East, then to Turkey and finally to the University of Glasgow in Scotland, thanks to the Council For At Risk Academics (CARA).

Glasgow university waived their fees and took them on for a first-year doctorate programme at their School of Education in the hope that one day they will return and help rebuild Syria.

The couple, who do not use their real names for fear of retribution against family and friends at home, speak emotionally of their time lecturing in Damascus.

They worked there between March 2011 and the end of 2012 and Muhammad taught English to medics, pharmacists and engineers.

"As academics, we were targeted by both the regime and the extremists," Muhammad told AFP in a phone interview from Glasgow.

"In times of war, education becomes politicised. The government was interfering in every aspect of the educational process. They wanted us to emphasise their own version of the story," he said.

Anyone who resisted was arrested or kidnapped and "disappeared" and asking any questions about their fate could put your own life in danger.

- Students not refugees -

The "extremists" believed that the two state university lecturers were regime loyalists.

The threats finally forced them to flee.

Muhammad left the country through Jordan, carrying only a briefcase with important documents and his academic qualifications.

Joury, who was pregnant, travelled to Lebanon.

She gave birth to their son in Kuwait, from which they were expelled after their tourist visas ran out.

In their months of wandering, they survived on their savings and a meagre income from English translations that Muhammad did online.

They then went to Turkey -- the only country that does not require visas for Syrians -- where they contacted CARA in April 2014.

"I had offers from Glasgow and from Exeter. My wife also had an offer from King's College and York. But neither of these universities were offering to waive the fees or providing support concerning the fees."

Through the intervention of CARA, Glasgow is allowing them to attend for free and providing further financial aid.

"It was very generous from the university," he said.

But their financial guarantees were judged insufficient by Britain's interior ministry, which denied them visas and questioned the authenticity of their student status.

"That was quite funny and strange because actually we got out Masters degrees from the UK," he said.

The two graduated from Exeter University in 2009.

The couple appealed the decision, with legal support provided by CARA, and finally obtained the documents in January allowing them to study in Britain.

CARA "almost saved our life, they gave us hope so we didn't go the hard way, we didn't go through smugglers.

"We are not refugees. We have been helped by CARA but we are now international students," he said.

In Scotland's biggest city, Muhammad has chosen to angle his thesis on teacher development and Joury on refugee education, hoping they will be able to put their skills to good use when they return.

"Education in times of war is different from a normal education. Students and teachers have changed and you have to change your way of teaching.

"We do believe that one day we can come back."

A British foundation created in 1933 to help academics flee Nazi Germany has found a new calling helping Syrian and Iraqi academics escape in the hope that one day they will return and rebuild.

"We work for the future of the countries affected and in some ways, sorry to be grandiose, for the future of the world," said Stephen Wordsworth, executive director of the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA).

Of the 2,000 academics who were helped to escape the Nazi regime and continue their work abroad, 16 went on to win Nobel prizes.

Currently, the foundation supports 140 academics and their families, many of whom intend to return to their countries of origin once it is safe.

"Without them, it will be pretty difficult to rebuild these countries, without the ability to train lawyers, doctors, architects," Wordsworth said.

The foundation is affiliated with over 100 British universities and several institutions in Australia, Canada, France and Germany.

It works to convince universities to waive their fees for the academics, and then supports their housing and living costs.

Nadia Faydh, 37, holds a PhD in English and American poetry from the University of Baghdad and was teaching at Al-Mustansiriya University in the Iraqi capital when she encountered intimidation by Shiite militias.

"They started to accuse me of things, which I'm not, and to be accused of such things is kind of a disgrace for women and for anyone in Iraq... like an atheist. If you are accused as an atheist, it means that you deserve death," Faydh, who wore a brightly-coloured veil, said in an interview in London.

"They know how to hurt people. My major concern is my family. I don't want to put my family in danger. I can't change myself, I will always speak my mind so the only option was to leave."

CARA helped Faydh secure a position as a research associate at King's College London.

- Education politicised -

About 450 academics have been deliberately targeted and murdered in Iraq since 2003, according to Wordsworth.

"They are seen as people who will ask difficult questions," Wordsworth said. "They are people seen as a threat and so they need to be eradicated so they are murdered."

Muhammad and his wife Joury, both teachers at a university in Damascus, found themselves under scrutiny by both religious extremists who suspected them of being faithful to President Bashar Al-Assad and by regime loyalists.

"In time of war, education becomes politicised. The government was interfering in every aspect of the educational process," Muhammad said in a phone interview from Glasgow where he and his wife are now studying.

"We were questioned by secret police and you have to show you are a true supporter of your government. It was unbearable."

CARA, which has an annual budget of 700,000 ($1 million, 900,000 euros), receives three to five new requests for help each week, three-quarters of them from Syria.

The requests are increasingly hard to meet, as the foundation's funds are already allocated.

In response, the foundation has asked universities for increased help, for example by providing accommodation.

Individual donations increased with media coverage of the beheading of the famed Syrian archeologist Khaled al-Asaad, who was the chief of antiquities in the ancient site of Palmyra for 50 years.

Five full-time employees helped by interns work at the headquarters of the organisation at London's South Bank University.

One of them, Alastair Lomas, is busy trying to help a Syrian academic with a French doctorate who is afraid of being summoned for military service.

"Until recently, academics were exempt," Lomas said.

"He has a wife and two children so we are looking for funding that will cover both the academic, so he can continue his research, but also that his wife and children can get out."

Lithuania notes new migrant route to Scandiavia: border guard
Vilnius (AFP) Sept 16, 2015 - Lithuania has detained dozens of Iraqis on its border with Poland en route to Scandinavia in recent weeks, authorities said Wednesday, pointing to a new migration route via the Baltic EU state.

"We haven't seen this before. It looks like a completely new route, a new direction for illegal migration through Lithuania," the country's border guard spokesman Giedrius Misutis told AFP.

"Lithuania is only a transit country for them. Their goal seems to be Finland," he said, adding that suspected people smugglers had Finnish or Swedish documents.

Border guards stopped 10 Iraqis travelling in two cars with Swedish plates after they entered from fellow EU state Poland early Wednesday.

Three of them face criminal charges over illegal transportation of people across a state border, while seven will be returned to Poland, the border guard service said.

This was the fourth time in less than two weeks that Lithuania has detained Iraqi migrants coming from Poland, it added.

Poland and the Baltic and Scandinavian states are all part of Europe's Schengen passport-free travel zone. It has come under intense pressure as the EU struggles to cope with an unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants.

Sweden and Germany have been among the most popular destinations for those fleeing war and upheaval across the Middle East and north Africa.

Lithuania, a Baltic nation of three million, says it is ready to host 1,105 asylum seekers as outlined by the European Commission under a controversial plan to share the burden.

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