It seems that the fates conspired when it came to the newly created Cara Scotland Manager role. We spoke with Sheila Mills on the unique path that brought her to the role and her passion for people.
By Sophie Craik
Sheila Mills has had a career that has followed several fascinating paths, with each strand now seeming to make perfect sense as she goes forward in her new role of Cara Scotland Manager. A newly created position, the job seeks to build and strengthen relationships between Cara and the higher education institutions of Scotland, as well as promote the organisation with a view to boosting funding, and also pursue the creation connections with civil society organisations.
“The fact that it’s a new post is really exciting and challenging. You’re being given the remit to do what you think needs to be done and to engage with people and find out what the feedback is about Cara at the moment.”
The work of Cara
As Cara explains on their website,
“Cara (the Council for At-Risk Academics) provides urgently-needed help to academics in immediate danger, those forced into exile, and many who choose to work on in their home countries despite serious risks. Cara also supports higher education institutions whose work is at risk or compromised.”
Their work is truly inspiring, persevering through difficult times with people who are in desperate situations.
“To think it’s been in existence for 85 years… it’s wonderful but it’s so sad that for 85 years we’ve needed to help people in this way.”
Edinburgh is already hosting two fully-funded post-doctoral ‘Cara Fellows’, with a third on the way. One example of the work Cara does is through the Syria programme, which supports Syrian academics in exile.
Jon Turner, Director for the Institute of Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh explained that
“We are involved in supporting the Cara Syria Programme for academics who have been displaced from Syria to Turkey and other neighbouring countries. This element of the Syria programme began with a pilot in 2016 and is due to run until at least April 2019. At this stage, participation has grown, with more than 70 Syrian colleagues currently involved in one or more of the programme strands.
Its aim is to help Syrian colleagues to stay connected with their academic communities (disciplinary and with other Syrian academics); to provide support and development opportunities for continuing research and teaching activities; to ensure that they can contribute to the recovery of Syrian HE when security permits.”
Academics in exile
What struck Sheila in particular about Cara is the view that the organisation takes of academics. Cara firmly believes that they are the people who are able to take a country forward and help it to progress.
“Albert Einstein gave a talk at the Albert Hall in 1933, and said that without intellectual and individual freedom there would have been no Shakespeare, no Goethe, no Newton, no Faraday, no Pasteur and no Lister. He was right; unless our intellectuals have the freedom to explore, be creative and think freely then we don’t advance, and I think that’s why it’s important the focus is on academics.
We’re not saying that they are the only ones who need help, but it’s a very special group of people. They are desperate to go back and build the universities back up, to teach and to disseminate knowledge. They want to get rid of the ignorance and the lack of awareness which can create a lot of problems. That’s what really struck me, it’s about learning and the pursuit of knowledge.”
There is a strong sense of identity amongst Cara fellows in that they want to be seen as academics rather than refugees, particularly as the aim is always to return home.
Cara works closely with the Home Office to make it clear that they are coming to study through Post Doc work and PhDs, being sponsored by a university to do so.
“If they aren’t able to go home at the end of the time, Cara then has to look at what can be done. They are dealing with complex issues - many of the academics are having to get family out as well, they’ve been through trauma, health issues, leaving people behind. There’s a lot going on.”
A twisting and turning path
Sheila’s interest in international activity began when she studied French and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen. Upon graduating, she volunteered at a hostel for girls in Pakistan for around 15 months, an experience that immersed her in a completely different environment than she had previously been used to. It ignited a firmly held belief:
“For me, it’s important to remember that people are people, wherever they are, whether they’re in the UK or anywhere around the globe - people are the same.
I remember someone going to Israel at one point, who said to me “Palestinians have gardens too.” That stuck with me, and reminds me that people are the same around the world. We’re more alike than we sometimes think.”
Following this, Sheila worked in a hospice in Glasgow as their Volunteer Coordinator, before studying Personnel Management at Strathclyde University. Following graduation, she went on to work for the Church of Scotland as their Overseas Personnel Manager, where she would work for eight years.
“I had really good experiences there, with people from all round the world and all manner of involvement in fairly difficult and complex situations. I worked with people based in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
I’ve always been a people person and drawn to the caring side of things, and I think that was again just about people, trying to meet a need and being really engaged in different cultures. It’s important to be learning all the time.”
After spending time working at Strathclyde Business School and the University of Stirling, in exchange programmes and partnerships respectively, Sheila explained that when she saw the Cara role come up, she was struck by how perfect it was for her considering her career experience.
“When the Cara job came along it was my ideal job. It’s been a twisting and turning path and when I saw that job I realised that was why - all these things led to it.”
Hopes for the future
Sheila explained that:
“My role is a bit of a pilot. Hopefully if this takes off and it’s helpful, there’s a possibility that they can think about doing something similar in other regions in England.
Scotland has enough higher education institutions to make it worthwhile while being a discrete geographical area. Scotland is also seen to be a very welcoming part of the country, and so that helps with the activity that Cara is trying to promote.”
Within the role, there are a couple of main strands that Sheila will be involved in.
"One is getting the universities on board if they aren’t already. Getting those that are engaged more involved, and getting Cara’s name more widely known throughout Scotland.
With the universities, we want to try to get more placements. That would be the one big thing because the immediate danger that the academics are in is the crux of the matter. We need to get them out, and help them to continue their profession as researchers in particular.”
Sheila would also like to see more involvement with civil society.
“The idea is to get in touch with local groups, such as Amnesty, and seeing what we can do together to raise the profile and make the environment even more supportive of what we’re trying to do.”
As well as those activities, there are also ambitions for an annual lecture, as well as a repeat of the Cara Scotland conference; their inaugural conference took place in 2017.
The wider aims of the activities of the role are ultimately to safeguard the future of Cara and their work.
“For Cara it would be great for them to know that there is that interest and that involvement and engagement, and that the money was coming in which allows them to deal with a crisis without having to do urgent fundraising.
I want to see the name of Cara widely known in Scotland. It’s part of my role to raise that awareness.
Cara isn’t a political lobbying group but I would hope that people would see what’s happening with these people and realise it’s not in isolation, that there are wider problems behind that.
We need to get to the root of the problems and for people to ask questions about why they’re happening, why these people are in danger.
I think there is a lot of good will but sometimes people don’t know what to do with that good will.
The human contact is important - being faced with someone who has a powerful story and understanding the hope that if you were in that position you’d want someone to help you."
You can get involved with Cara through donating to the 10 x 20 appeal.
Cara.ngo - 10 x 20 appeal
You can also contact Sheila Mills if there is another way you could help.
Offers of support in terms of accommodation, childcare or simply being willing to meet with a Cara fellow for a coffee is always appreciated.
Sophie Craik is the Digital Communications Officer for Edinburgh Global, spending her days chasing runaway punctuation and divining with the magic that is social media.