Rescued Syrian academic talks for the first time about escaping to Scotland from the horrors of a 10-year long war, reports Rebecca McQuillan

An academic rescued from war-torn Syria and brought to Scotland says being in Aberdeen is like “living in a very long dream I am worried about waking up from”.

Zaher Al Bakour narrowly escaped a sniper’s bullet in Aleppo as well as deadly barrel bombs dropped near his place of work, and came to Scotland with the help of Cara, the Council for At-Risk Academics.

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the outbreak of Syria’s civil war. The fight between rebels and government forces for the city of Aleppo was characterised by multiple attacks on civilians. It was one of the deadliest in a war which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates has so far claimed nearly 600,000 lives.

Speaking for the first time about his experiences, Mr Al Bakour said he “cannot describe” what it felt like coming to Scotland. “Coming here, that shift, is just unimaginable, going from a very, very low stage where you have no options, no dreams, no anything, into a place where now you can have dreams and you can achieve them.”

Cara, a low-profile UK charity that rescues academics from war, persecution and mortal danger, is currently experiencing the highest ever demand for help in its 88-year history.

Mr Al Bakour, 30, is one of 14 “Cara fellows” currently at Scottish institutions.

The pharmacology PhD student at Aberdeen University left Aleppo with Cara’s help in 2016.

He said: “When I used to go to university, I used to have to pass one street that was under the control of snipers who used to shoot people in the street. You used to have to run so you didn’t get caught.

“One night I was coming back home and the sniper started shooting, when I was on the street. He got a lamppost next to me. So I jumped into a building, hiding, waiting.” Once the shots stopped, he emerged and ran home.

Of that brush with death, he said: “It never leaves. It’s something that you feel is stuck to your memory.


“But it makes me stronger most of the time. I handle stress in a different way, always compare it to that situation.”

After finishing his undergraduate degree, he worked at a pharmaceutical company which was a target for bombers.

One morning, a helicopter dropped a deadly barrel bomb on a nearby warehouse, setting it alight. When a crowd gathered, the helicopter wheeled round and dropped another bomb. Mr Al Bakour knew from experience that he had only 20 seconds to take cover: “These seconds, it is like, it’s coming, we know, we can hear it coming closer, and then it explodes.

“If you’re still alive, it’s not your building.”

Describing being welcomed with “open arms” in Aberdeen, he said: “Every time I speak with my wife about it, when we remember the old days we feel we are so grateful.

“Probably people underestimate how much they help by offering a position.”

Fifteen Scottish higher education institutions are part of the Cara network, from

large research-intensive institutions like Edinburgh and Glasgow to smaller modern universities.

Many individual academics are also involved with Cara’s Syria Programme supporting Syrian academics in exile in the Middle East. Scott McQuarrie, Cara’s Scotland regional manager, said: “The fact we have 15 universities and 14 Fellows is pretty good. There is obviously room for improvement but if you map that against the English, Welsh and Northern Irish numbers, Scotland is doing pretty well as a percentage.”

He added: “Even before the pandemic, the university sector in Scotland was already having to cope with the rising cost of pensions and pay as well as the Brexit impact.

“But we haven’t seen this affect universities’ willingness to continue to commit significant resources to support Cara’s work, or indeed to engage with other initiatives, such as the Universities of Sanctuary movement or to continue their own programmes of support for refugee students.”

The expertise of academics is carefully matched to the research needs of partner institutions, making it a “win-win” scenario, said Mr McQuarrie, adding that the feedback from universities was “nothing but positive”.

Cara is unique, with no equivalent in Europe. Its first “rescue operations” in the 1930s were supported by Albert Einstein and later saved hundreds from Stalinist regimes, juntas and apartheid.