Edinburgh Global

At-risk academic shares his story

This Refugee Week 2023 we are celebrating the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees and people seeking sanctuary alongside the theme of Compassion. Read Edinburgh academic Salim's personal story of huge disruption in his academic career, and finding his way in Scotland.

Edinburgh skyline with a man on top of craggy hill

Salim (name has been changed) lost his academic job overnight and his reputation with it; his home nation was in chaos and everything in his life changed. Now, he is re-establishing his career at the University of Edinburgh and his family life in the city with the support of Cara, which provides urgent help to academics in immediate danger, those forced into exile, and also to those who choose to continue to work in their home countries despite facing serious risks.

What was the situation you were leaving?

I was filled with complex fears and anxieties that arose from the uncertainties gripping my mind. These were feelings I had never experienced before, and they are difficult to describe. The scars from that situation run deep and are painful.

I was simply an academic who tried to do my job to the best of my ability. In one night, I lost my job and my reputation. All my possessions and the money I had in the bank were seized.

You can imagine my situation. All my professional connections were gone, and the same for some of my colleagues. My friend and I were supervising a foreign PhD student who was working on our project. The student was in the final stages of writing his thesis, but after we were dismissed all of his work was also thrown out. The reason for this was that my friend and I were the supervisors, and the project was connected to us.

None of our fellow academics were willing to continue the student's thesis or help with our near-ending project due to fear. Moreover, some of them with whom I had written academic articles and submitted them to academic journals even contacted the journals and had the articles recalled.

The other supervisor of this PhD student, who is disabled and one of the country's most accomplished academics, was imprisoned for nearly seven years. After his release, the only job he could find was selling chicken eggs in front of his grandfather's house in his village. I was the lucky one to escape.

What has been your biggest challenge?

As a father, when embarking on an uncertain journey with your whole family, only the emotions of fatherhood remain. In this situation, it's very difficult to look into my children's eyes and try to smile, while living with worries that they may not know or understand.

What were your impressions of Scotland when you arrived?

A beautiful green country where friendly people live. The locals are incredibly welcoming and helpful. I didn’t face any specific challenges or problems upon arriving here.

What support and compassion have you experienced and how crucial is it to you?

The most important thing for repairing my lost confidence was sincere smiles from sincere people.

Coming to Edinburgh was like a shipwrecked person reaching a sunny and calm beach after a stormy sea. Seeing that the staff here did their best and sincerely wanted to help in every way possible was the greatest support.

What stands out for me is the understanding of my friends in my department and their acceptance of me into their team despite my shortcomings and mistakes.

How has the experience impacted your life?

I always knew that democratic values were very important, but I did not realise with my whole being how vital and indispensable they are for a healthy society. With this experience, I had the chance to see that democracy is the best system ever developed by human beings for a humane life on a social level. I have also seen that for such a system to work properly, the members of society must be at a level where they can understand it. From this perspective, it was truly empowering to meet people at the University of Edinburgh who share these values in their lives.

What impact do you feel providing refuge has in the UK?

It is evident that humans possess a level of creativity and intelligence that is superior to that of all other living things. This fact implies that humans have a greater responsibility than other creatures. However, regrettably, we do not display the same level of responsibility towards nature or the instinctual drive to protect our own kind that even a flock of birds exhibits while living in the wild. Even during the pandemic, societies acted on a country basis rather than a holistic approach. This revealed an image of humanity that was not good.

In my opinion, providing refuge plays a crucial role in addressing this lack of responsibility. 

Helping people who are affected by short-term regional interests is the most accurate sign of responsible living. I believe that the Scottish people are acting in the best way possible in this regard. My opinion is not only based on my own experiences; I share the same view with hundreds of my friends scattered across many countries in the world and in the UK. I think that the Scottish people deserve appreciation for their efforts. However, I observe that governments are inadequate in this matter.

What role should universities play in providing refuge and sanctuary?

Universities are vital centres where the minds and consciences of societies converge. Therefore, the level of responsibility should be higher than that of other institutions in the country/society. In addition to the various opportunities currently available at universities, remote assistance could be provided to academics.

I have witnessed more than ten academics who stayed in asylum camps or were granted asylum being unable to complete their work due to a lack of access to online libraries and official email accounts, despite having the time to do so. Universities could offer these academics an "online/distance guest researcher" position without financial burden. This approach would ensure that there is no gap in the careers of academics who wish to return to academia, and hundreds of useful research products could emerge.

In addition, seed funds could provide for collaboration between local and refugee academics on projects.


Thank you, Salim, for sharing your story.


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Join us during Refugee Week events; watch a film, join a discussion, appreciate art, literature, community, and more.

Refugee Week 2023

Read our community stories from displaced scholars and academics

This Refugee Week 2023 we are celebrating the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees, as well as those who have been displaced alongside the theme of Compassion.

Edinburgh alum, Dajana Dzanovic reached out to the University with this incredible account of her experience seeking sanctuary in the early 90's.

Dajana's story

The University of Edinburgh has been an active member of the Council for At Risk Academics (Cara), since its foundation in 1933. The Council for At-Risk Academics helps academics in immediate danger, those forced into exile, and many who choose to remain in their home countries despite the serious risks they face.

Council for At Risk Academics

Amanullah Ahmadzai and his family were forced to leave their home in Afghanistan in May 2022. Since then, Amanullah but has been able to continue in his academic profession as a Research Fellow at the Edinburgh Law School. 

Amanullah's story

The University of Edinburgh has long been committed to its role as a University of Sanctuary, working in partnership with the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) to help protect vulnerable scholars and refugees. Here, we look at the role the University played in supporting renowned Viennese composer, Hans Gál, after fleeing from Nazi occupied Austria.

Hans Gál's story

Find out more

Refugee Week website  

Refugee Week 2022 (Community Stories)

Refugee Week 2021

Refugee Week 2020

Refugee Week 2019