In the Green Zone, a safe area where politicians live, Hajjar and his friend are hiding in a villa preparing for an attack. To pass the time, Hajjar is looking after a rabbit. When he goes to clean the hutch one morning the rabbit appears to have laid an egg. Absurd events like these run alongside moments of horror and violence in Hassan Blasim’s collection of short stories about Iraq called The Corpse Exhibition.

These stories of the everyday devastation of people’s lives caught in war zones became reality at a recent talk about the work of The Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) by its director, Stephen Wordsworth. The talk was part of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences’ Learning and Teaching day and was, without doubt, the most moving event I’ve been to at this kind of conference. I’ve just joined the University of Portsmouth and have been fortunate that it’s the conference season. I’ve seen interesting work, met lots of people, who’ve been welcoming and friendly and been to some excellent talks.

What stands out were the accounts of their recent lives by three academics who were supported by CARA ( Each of them talked about how their academic careers were closed down by the war in Syria. CARA helped them to escape, got them visas and has found them work at the University of Portsmouth so that they could continue their careers as academics until such time as they can return to their country. Their families and friends remain in Syria.

There has been more debate recently about academic freedom in UK HE, often raising concerns about the introduction of the ’Prevent duty’ in 2015. Under threat was academics’ right ‘to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or the privileges they may have’ (1988 Education Reform Act). Hearing the stories of these three people, their struggle to survive and to pursue their careers in higher education, put some of these debates – and our privileged position – into perspective.

Julian Ingle has just joined the University of Portsmouth as the new Deputy Head of ASK. Prior to this he worked at Queen Mary University of London as part of the Thinking Writing initiative, and as an educational developer and lecturer at several London universities.

Image credits: Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash