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article imageFrom Damascus to Glasgow: Syrian academics' escape to freedom

By Maureen Cofflard (AFP)     Sep 16, 2015 in World

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 -

Executive director of the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA)  Stephen Wordsworth  poses for a phot...
Executive director of the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA), Stephen Wordsworth, poses for a photo in London on September 11, 2015
Ben Stansall, AFP/File

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."

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