Spanning the late Cold War and after it, Stephen Wordsworth enjoyed a distinguished career at the Foreign Office before going on to become Britain’s Ambassador to Serbia. Then in 2012 he agreed to become executive director at the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA). Just a year earlier unrest in Syria had slid into a civil war between the government and its opponents. Stephen and CARA would be at the forefront of attempts to help Syrian intellectuals escape the violence so they could one day return to rebuild their country. At the same time their work to help academics trapped in less high profile but still dangerous situations goes on.
Story by Neil Thompson
In his lifetime Stephen Wordsworth has been to many places and done many things. His personal history is quite a roll-call; entering Cambridge to study Russian and German, then a thirty year career at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office that took him to the Soviet Union, Nigeria, Germany, Serbia and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
His final official posting was as UK Ambassador to Serbia, a country he knew well from his time as a diplomat. He has left his successor in Belgrade the tradition, which he was first foreign ambassador to begin, of keeping the embassy blog up to date on current affairs. Along the way he also found the time to work as a member of his local parish council and collect the awards and medals that signal recognition for success in a long official life.
It was after leaving the Foreign Office, when he joined what was then the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA) in 2012, that Stephen entered the not-for-profit world.
It was not the first time he had been involved in a number of places with refugee issues or the sort of situations which make people become refugees. During his time at the Foreign Office he was asked to head up the unit in London which coordinated the government’s response to the clashes between Israel and Hezbollah.
That crisis led about 4,500 people from Lebanon leaving under British protection, so that within the space of a few weeks they were helped to get away from the conflict to Cyprus and in some cases onto the UK. Fortunately in this case the conflict died down again and the refugees were able to go home. Still Stephen thinks that there is a natural connection between the work that he does at CAR and some of the work from his days in the Foreign Office.
A spell in the Balkans during the wars in the former Yugoslavia also shaped Stephen’s thinking. During our interview he says the region was “clearly the most direct example” of something which influenced him before his time at CARA.
It is hard not see why. He first got involved in the Balkans during 1995 when he was seconded to Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, the formal name for the NATO headquarters at Mons. Things in Eastern Europe had moved rapidly after the end of communism, and in some places such as the western Balkans, events had turned messy and violent.
There, he was to liaise as a civilian political advisor with the military planners then developing plans for the military-led intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was going on in parallel with the peace talks at Dayton aimed at ending the conflict.
Stephen found himself working as a civilian with the planners developing the military-led intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In an almost entirely military staff he was something of a link for his colleagues to the political side of things in Brussels.
The situation was a perplexing and complex one for all the people involved at the time he remembers. While NATO had practiced and planned for well over forty years, it was on the basis of the particular threat from the Soviet Union to the US and Western Europe.
When it found itself called upon for the organization’s first ever real mission it discovered this involved a range of issues which many of the staff at both the Mons and Brussels NATO headquarters had no real experience of, including handling dubious former Yugoslavian ex-communist bureaucrats.
“The idea was that going as a peacekeeping mission, or more than peacekeeping, more peace-restoring mission, you’d have to deal with every level of the local authorities,” Stephen recalls, “That included some who were pretty unpleasant, pretty unreformed and were part of the problem from before.”
This Balkans experience was one of several times when his work took him to places with refugee issues and featuring the sort of problems which make people become refugees, including corruption, bad government and conflict.
This made Stephen a good fit for CARA, itself started in response to what its founder William Beveridge, the then-director of the London School of Economics, discovered when he was traveling around Europe in 1933.
“The Nazis had just come to power. They were expelling Jews from the public services, which in Germany included universities and school teaching. So Beveridge came back and galvanized his colleagues,” Stephen explains, “They were appalled at the idea, not just in terms of the human suffering and individuals losing their jobs and being pushed out, but what this also meant in terms of science and learning as they put it in those days. Essentially what this meant in terms of human knowledge. These were after all people from the top end of a very well developed university system, being pushed out into who knew what.”
The aim, then as now, was to find ways to support exiled academics until they were able to escape, and then to find themselves new positions, either in the UK or elsewhere.
While some of the original beneficiaries of CARA did go back to Germany after 1945 however, the organization no longer refers to them as refugees. It sees its mission as providing a temporary rescue service to people in need until they can sort themselves out, with the goal that they will eventually go back home.
“We are not in the brain drain business,” Stephen says firmly, “It wouldn’t be helpful.”
He points out that if all of the most intelligent and best trained people leave the countries of a troubled region like the Middle East today it can create enormous difficulties.
In any case many of his group’s Fellows, as academics who apply are called, are emphatic about wanting to return as soon as they can.
“We had a big program for Iraq a few years ago,” Stephen remembers, “And over 90% of those we were working with then did go back to Iraq when conditions changed, and helped to rebuild.”
Some then had to flee a second time after the Islamic State group seized power across parts of western and northern Iraq in 2014.
But while they are abroad all the Fellows helped by CARA’s work have been able to maintain their skills, add new ones, and sometimes earn some higher qualifications. They have also built the networks with the international community which have proved so beneficial for their countries after a conflict ends.
However war is not the only time that academics approach CARA for help and the reasons can vary hugely. Investigating and exposing corruption is one cause. In some cases just talking about certain politically sensitive topics can land an academic in a very tight spot, whether from a government, or from criminal or extremist groups.
Persecution can also be more personal, to do with an academic’s religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. Stephen cites the cases of certain female academics from Syria whose own students became radicalized by fundamentalist groups there and who began to vehemently react to having women working at their universities.
“They [the students] began to object to the way they behaved, the way they talked, the fact that they were essentially at university teaching at all,” he tells me, “They threatened them and in more than one case the female academic in the end was sent a bullet in an envelope with a message saying ‘If you don’t change your ways you won’t see it coming next time’. So they had to get out.”
Stephen’s arrival to work as CARA’s executive director in 2012 coincided with the intensification of Syria’s civil war and the group’s work has undeniably expanded since. Syrian citizens now form the overwhelming majority of new applications to the charity, although Stephen is keen to stress that it is currently helping support people from around 25 countries.
The Syrian conflict’s high profile in the international community has meant a surge of interest in the organization’s mission from UK universities however. Their increase in support has meant that CARA has been able to commit to helping many more at-risk academics than just ten years ago.
“Last year we reckoned that the total value of support that we got from universities was in excess of one million. This year we are already at one and a half million, so it’s growing,” he reflects, “The general background of the university crisis makes people see that this is urgent. Even though these people aren’t refugees it creates the atmosphere where people will focus on the problem.”
All the universities who join also agree to make places available for the people it helps, either as students or as staff. Potential Fellows therefore have to provide three academic references who can vouch for them.
“It helps us establish what level they are at and what they need. We also ask them to set out clearly the nature of the risk they are facing,” Stephen informs me.
CARA encourages universities to do a Skype interview if they can. Universities have to satisfy themselves that any candidate CARA approaches them about is an academic fit, because it is in nobody’s interest to have somebody doing a course or research where they would fail.
The reason for all this care comes down to cost, since normally a university will provide a fee waiver to prospective candidates. CARA used to then cover the living costs of all its Fellows but because of the numbers it is now facing, Stephen says they have had to ask universities to provide some or all of these in many cases as well. Candidates, spouses and children are all in need of expensive accommodation.
Raising funds for CARA’s mission is a little like “chasing the end of the rainbow” Stephen says. Even with the extra help today there are still 100 people with whom the organisation are in touch, and looking for places and funding for.
“One of our regular funders came back to us a few months ago and said their trustees had seen the news and wanted to do more to help. Could we use some more money?” he remembers them asking, “So we said yes we could, and if you give it to us today we can spend it tomorrow.”