We're told from an early age about the power that education has to open doors and change lives. 

But life-changing events aren't always positive in the moment. Where do you turn when your education changes from an asset to a danger, and suddenly there is a target on your back?

Academics around the world are regularly caught in the firing line when conflicts erupt.

For some, they become a target because they were willing to speak up against oppression, despite the risks it meant for themselves and their families.

Others are put at risk when they refuse to compromise on their professional values, and they would rather risk their own safety than feel like a liar in front of theit students and colleagues or, worse, become complicit in an unjust regime.

Still others simply want to continue their lives. They want to chase the basic human ambition to do something, anything, with their lives rather than staying put and waiting for the violence to reach their doorstep.

For many of these academics, university provided them with a lifeline at a time when all other doors seemed closed. The University of Edinburgh has a long history of welcoming at-risk academics and supporting them and their families during periods of almost unimaginable difficulty.

But coming to the UK to study isn't only about escaping trouble back home. The skills they learn here – practical, professional, and interpersonal – can have a direct impact on families and colleagues who were not lucky enough to escape. 

The Herald spoke with a group of refugee academics who found their way to the University of Edinburgh after fleeing a variety of situations and over the course of decades. In each case, they describe a new life

Kainat's story: They shot us for going to school

When Kainat Riaz was a teenager in Pakistan, a masked gunman boarded her school bus and opened fire.

The shooter was a member of the Taliban and Kainat's friend, Malala, was the main target. She was an outspoken supporter of women and young girls having access to education, under a regime that actively suppressed those opportunities.

Malala survived and became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and she recognised Kainat and their friend Shazia Ramzan – who was also shot on the bus – as equal trailblazers in her acceptance speech. 

The Herald: Spurred on by an encounter with violent prejudice in her childhood, Kainat Riaz is using the skills learned at the University of Edinburgh to be a voice for young girls and oppressed communities in Pakistan.Spurred on by an encounter with violent prejudice in her childhood, Kainat Riaz is using the skills learned at the University of Edinburgh to be a voice for young girls and oppressed communities in Pakistan. (Image: Nic Cameron)

Kainat's life changed on that day in 2012. She continued to live in Pakistan for months, and during that time her family and her neighbours continued to draw danerous attention. 

"After the incident, there was a bomb blast behind my house 

Although the world can be full of senseless, unexplainable violence, Kainat said that she knows exactly why she and her friends were attacked.

"We were shot by the Taliban. The reason? We were going to school. The Taliban asked my parents to keep me at home and not send me to school, not allow me to do the activities I shouldn't do."

That understanding meant that, theoretically, Kainat also knew how to make the violence stop. But for her, compromise was never an option.

"Once I was shot, I realised the importance of education and how we were struggling. So I started coming on social media, doing interviews and joining conferences, the same kinds of things that Malala was doing."

The violence didn't stop, and soon there was another attack that killed Kainat's friend and her friend's grandmother. 

"After that, my life changed completely. We got threats from the Taliban, at the same time that the community was saying they don't feel safe because of me. They threatened me and my family to leave the area, so they could stay in peace."

Packing up and moving wasn't an option financially for Kainat's family, but she was lucky to receive some security from the Pakistani government before eventually earning a scholarship to Atlantic College in Wales, supported by then UN special envoy on global education Gordon Brown.

She said she was 11 when came to the UK, but her family thought that it was the safest option to leave the country. She eventually enrolled and has recently graduated from the University of Edinburgh, and she has her sights set on a master's degree in public health as her next step.

But since coming to the UK in 2013, Kainat has not stopped thinking about her home in Pakistan, and the young girls and others who have not had the same opportunities to escape.

She works to promote education and civic awareness in Pakistan, and continues to look for ways that her education in Scotland can support people back home. 

"I would like to help build a new school to train people and start from the very beginning. The school would especially be for girls, because I think they need an environment where parents can send them and feel the surety that we will give them a safe space to learn."

Amanullah's story: 'I felt like a liar'

Before the collapse of the Afghan government in August 2021, Amanullah Ahmadzai had worked as a lawyer in academia and public administration for over a decade. He taught at Kabul University and worked with the Ministry of Justice of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

At the start of his career, before the collapse, Amanullah said that he felt comfortable speaking against injustice in public.

"I was invited often, and I had a responsibility to comment on certain situations and speak out to say what is fair and not fair, what's justice and what we should change. I felt safe to comment on the government and say that certain policies were unfair and that things would not be right."

But that quickly changed. After the collapse, Amanullah said that he no longer felt safe speaking out the way he had before. New restrictions were imposed on academics, including what they should and should not teach, how they should dress and how to wear their hair.

The Herald: Amanullah Ahmadzai left his home in Afghanistan, feeling that to stay and compromise his values would have only caused more harm to his community. He's now working to effect change from Edinburgh.Amanullah Ahmadzai left his home in Afghanistan, feeling that to stay and compromise his values would have only caused more harm to his community. He's now working to effect change from Edinburgh. (Image: Nic Cameron)

He suddenly felt that his hard-earned qualifications no longer held value under the new regime. Faced with a choice to stay in Afghanistan, conform to the new order and sacrifice his values, or leave family and friends behind to continue his career, Amanullah made a heartbreaking decision.

"I could have stayed back in Afghanistan and accept all of the risks to life. But I felt that I wasn't in a situation that I could contribute to the society. I felt my life was being somehow wasted. Because in a real sense an academic and thinker dies when he or she is prevented from freely expressing himself or herself."

One of the most painful moment came when he was addressing his students one day under the new regime, and he realised that he was not being honest with them. 

"I was looking at my students' eyes and I felt like a big liar. I felt ashamed because I got a lot of questions from their eyes, if not verbally, and I didn't have any response to those questions. I tried to hide myself from them, to not hear any questions from them. 

"Because it wasn't teaching."

The university itself was targeted, resulting in the deaths of promising students and colleagues. In 2022, Amanullah finally decided to leave home and accept a fellowship at the University of Edinburgh, thanks to support from CARA (the Council for At-Risk Academics). The transition was not an easy one. 

He is painfully aware of the fact that not everyone was lucky enough to have lifeline to escape that he did. Academics are regularly targeted in periods of violence and chaos, but they are not always the first to mind when governments set up humanitarian corridors. He also had to contend with messages from those he left behind who didn't understand his motives and felt betrayed.

"'Why did you leave the community that needed you?' some asked. They told me I was raised here and benefitted from the society, but I left them in a situation of need.

"That was upsetting, but this is what I understand. My desire is to contribute more, to stand stronger and to gain more skills to better support the community."

He also felt that if he stayed and conformed, he would only be making things worse.

"If I stayed there and couldn't contribute to justice, my stay would worsen the situation. I could sacrifice myself, and I would do it over again, on the condition that it would make the situation better. 

"But if my stay there would worsen the situation, I would ignore that feeling."

Now, he is a first-year PhD student at the university, studying dispute resolution. But always he has an eye for how his studies can promote change back home. 

"We don't know the future, and the future seems dark from some perspective. But still colleagues and myself keep hope that there might be times that we can contribute, and I can use my skills in research and teaching. I always have that in my mind."

Dajana's story: 'Like any human being, I had ambition'

When Dajana Dzanovic left Bosnia and Herzegovina for Edinburgh in 1993, she thought she was only passing through. But after taking a job as an au-pair with an Edinburgh family, she quickly realised that the conflict she left behind her at home was not going to be short-lived.

"We had a normal life, and then overnight we didn't, and I'm almost still trying to work out exactly what happened then."

She connected with the Scottish Refugee Council and enrolled at Edinburgh University in 1995 on a scholarship for Eastern European students, similar to refugee initiatives that the university continues today. 

Her undergraduate studies were interrupted when war broke out at home in the 1990s, and she said that she was keen to restart her academic career once she was settled in Edinburgh. 

The Herald: Dajana Dzanovic continues to work in universities supporting international students who, like herself, need support in order to continue their careers.Dajana Dzanovic continues to work in universities supporting international students who, like herself, need support in order to continue their careers. (Image: Nic Cameron)

One of the strongest feelings that remained with her from the time she lived through the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina was a sense that her life was being put on hold. And for her, that wasn't acceptable.

"I don't know how much thought really went into my decision rather than human instinct. I was 17 when the war broke out, I came from a well-educated family and we had a very 'normal' life with everything I could need and more. 

"And then, at one point, things got quite bad. We were relatively safe at first, but then the city was attacked one night. There started to be shells more often. We had to hide ourselves, but then we got used to it until eventually, you're wandering the street with things happening above your head. 

"At some point I got a little scared. But like any human being, I had the ambition to do something. Sitting and waiting for things to get better was okay for a little while, but soon I felt I wanted to do something useful."

Over time, she built relationships and grew a professional and personal network that has carried her through PhD studies and into a career with Universities UK International. 

Without the people she met in Edinburgh, through the university and otherwise, Dajana said she can't imagine how her life would have turned out. Looking back over a journey that began with a frightened but ambitious 18-year-old leaving a warzone to start a new life, she is filled with gratitude for the support she received along the way.

"I never really had a formal opportunity to thank the University of Edinburgh for providing me so much support early on in my life. Now, thirty years on I can look back and see how life-changing it was. 

"Individual human beings are just amazing. I feel really lucky to have come across really kind people and thoughtful individuals who treated me as a human being rather than anything else."