‘I kind of gave up’: how academics in danger rebuild their lives in exile

Tim Judah:

A few minutes after meeting Zaher al-Bakour in a Caffè Nero on Aberdeen’s Union Street, his phone rings and he swipes to decline the call. It is just his sister, he says. Mortified that he should do this to someone WhatsApp-calling him from rebel-held territory in Syria while we chat over croissants and cappuccinos, I suggest that he call her back. She thinks her nine-year-old daughter has typhoid and, since there are no doctors there, wants al-Bakour, an academic who specialises in pharmacology, to analyse the case. He can’t. Though he spends his days in a white lab coat tinkering with test tubes and microscopes, “I’m not a doctor,” he says.

It’s a cruel twist to a modern war. Imagine that, in 1943, you could have called Aberdeen from the Warsaw ghetto. Indeed, in a way al-Bakour, a 27-year-old from conflict-torn Aleppo, has ended up in the granite “grey city” because of the Nazis. He is an exiled academic who has been brought to Britain by the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara), a British organisation founded in 1933 to help German-Jewish scholars who were fired when Hitler came to power.