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Science, Interrupted by War

War and strife have uprooted many researchers. Can their life’s work be saved?

By Jennifer Hattam
Oct 4, 2017 8:34 PMNov 18, 2019 6:28 PM
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(Credits, collage photos: AFP/Getty Images, Lipowski Milan/Shutterstock)


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Eqbal Dauqan was excited. She had just completed her postdoctoral fellowship and was leading the new therapeutic nutrition department she’d lobbied to create at Yemen’s Al-Saeed University. Then the bombs started dropping.

“Everything was damaged, our university, our home. My family had to move to a rental apartment outside the center of the city, where people were fighting and killing each other,” says Dauqan, 37, a biochemist from Ta‘izz. The city, near the Red Sea in the country’s south, was known as Yemen’s cultural capital. Before the armed conflict between rival military factions in Yemen broke out in March 2015, Dauqan had been a lecturer and head of the university’s laboratory medicine and therapeutic nutrition departments, where she and her students researched the effects of natural antioxidants on health.

“Our university had to close down due to the attacks, and I stayed home for 10 months with no salary, hardly any internet access, and often no electricity to charge my laptop or mobile phone,” says Dauqan. After months of idleness and fear, Dauqan got a fellowship as a visiting scholar at University Kebangsaan Malaysia, where she had done her postgraduate studies. But another hurdle remained: getting out of Yemen. 

“Our airport in Ta‘izz was closed due to the fighting. There’s another airport, in Sana’a, but it’s 15 hours away by car, and the road is very dangerous,” Dauqan says. During a brief window of opportunity, however, Dauqan was able to leave via Sana’a.

Current conflicts raging around the world have created the highest numbers of displaced people ever tallied by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the agency that tracks and advocates for displaced populations. More than 20 million people have had to leave their home countries; about 40 million more are displaced within their borders. Among them are thousands of scientists and researchers, many fleeing with little more than a USB flash drive or the password to a Dropbox account containing what they could salvage of their life’s work.

The war in Syria alone has displaced at least 2,000 scholars. Less than 10 percent of them have been able to resume their careers — and even fewer return to their fields — according to the Institute of International Education-Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE-SRF). The New York-based group, which is funding Dauqan’s fellowship in Malaysia, is just one of several organizations helping at-risk academics.

Although many of the researchers are refugees, their status varies. Some have formally sought asylum in the countries where they are now working or studying, while others hope their academic placements abroad will be a temporary respite. Countless more scholars remain in their own countries, their work — and lives — severely restricted by security threats, failing infrastructure, persecution, loss of income, international isolation and collapsing governments.

“These researchers are important as critical voices in their home countries and for contributing to development and social well-being, to scientific and economic progress,” says Georg Scholl of Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung, a foundation that is funding dozens of displaced researchers on two-year fellowships at German universities and research institutions through its Philipp Schwartz Initiative. “They are not just refugees in need, but researchers who are good at what they do,” Scholl says. “If we lose them, we lose their impact, too, what they could do for economies and for societies.”

Yemeni biochemist Eqbal Dauqan, currently a visiting scholar at a Malaysian university, was able to travel to Italy earlier this year to attend a conference on displaced scientists. Many other researchers, however, are unable to leave their war-torn homelands, or languish in refugee camps where their skills go unrecognized. (Credit: Demis Albertacci/the World Academy of Sciences)

“I Feel Like a Real Scientist Again”

Nedal Said was one such researcher working to make a positive impact in his home country of Syria. At a microbiology lab in Aleppo that monitored water pollution, he was researching new methods of drinking water disinfection. Then, in 2012, a friend in the police force tipped him off that he had been labeled an opponent of the Syrian regime and was in serious danger. “My friend said, ‘I won’t tell anyone, but you have to leave the country within two days,’ ” Said says. “So I got passports issued for me and my family, and we fled to Turkey.”

More than 20 million people have had to flee their home countries; about 40 million more are displaced within their borders.

There, Said, his wife and their three young children bounced around cities, moving from a rented home into a refugee camp as their financial resources dwindled. Said worked a year as a cashier in a produce market, but it provided hardly enough money to live on, much less any professional satisfaction. “I studied for 15 years to do science, to help people, not to live in a camp with the government giving me food,” he says. Seeing no future in Turkey, Said left his family in the camp and made the perilous sea crossing to Europe, ending up in Germany, where he didn’t know a single person and couldn’t speak the language. His luck changed when he met a couple he could talk to in Russian, which he knew from his student days abroad.

“Finally I could explain myself, how I was a microbiologist, how I had worked at a university in Aleppo,” Said says. A chain of personal connections led him to a professor at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig who was looking for a microbiologist for his department. The researcher sponsored Said’s successful application to become one of the Philipp Schwartz Initiative’s first fellows.

“The people at the Helmholtz Centre are from Canada, Italy, Japan, Russia, but we all work as one family,” Said says. He has been preparing bacteria samples and learning how to use a cryo-scanning electron microscope to analyze the role microorganisms play in transforming carbon, nitrogen and other elements in both natural and polluted ecosystems. “I feel like a real scientist again.”

Said’s family has joined him in Germany, where they are all learning the language. “The children learn very quickly, not like us,” he laughs. He is volunteering with another organization, Chance for Science, which connects displaced researchers with academic resources and European peers. “I talk to the scientists who only speak Arabic, to tell them about ways they can continue in their field in Germany,” Said says. “I know how they feel because I lived through the same difficult situation. I want to help them, because they are like I was.”

Many uprooted scientists feel a similar commitment to help their colleagues — those trying to integrate in a new country and those struggling to continue their work back home. Dauqan, the Yemeni biochemist in Malaysia, recently organized an academic workshop for Yemeni students at her current university. She also tries to help them find postgraduate job opportunities abroad until it is safe to return home. And she continues to act as a supervisor for a biochemistry Ph.D. candidate who is still in Yemen. “We communicate by WhatsApp and email,” Dauqan says of the candidate, who is analyzing the chemical composition of thyme. “The university in Sana’a is still open, but her situation is so difficult. She is trying to do her best, but she can’t do any laboratory work when they have no electricity.”

Sarah Willcox, director of the Scholar Rescue Fund, has seen the dedication many displaced scientists have to developing the next generation of researchers despite their difficult situations. “Many of our fellows are still advising their master’s and Ph.D. students, texting them feedback on their theses,” Willcox says. The Scholar Rescue Fund organizes distance-learning lectures by its Iraqi fellows that help fill the gaps in their home country’s curriculum. Iraqi scholars abroad have livestreamed hundreds of lectures on a wide range of subjects to colleagues and students in Iraq when internet connectivity is good enough, and delivered the material on DVDs when it is not.

Iraqi marine biologist Adil Al-Handal, an IIE-SRF fellow, gave a series of these talks cautioning colleagues in Baghdad about predatory publishing. “Most academics in Iraq don’t have international experience, they’re not good in English, and they don’t have the facilities and technology needed to do good research and get published in reputable journals, so they turn to these fake journals with no peer review,” Al-Handal explains. “I wanted to make clear to them the damage they can do to their research if they publish in such journals.”

In Germany, a chance encounter with someone who spoke a shared language led to displaced Syrian microbiologist Nedal Said finding a position in his field at Leipzig's Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research. (Credit: Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research)

A Chilling Effect

The influence academics like Al-Handal have among students and colleagues can be part of what puts them at risk, says Willcox. “Professors are in a position of prominence,” she says. “They are well-respected in society, so silencing them sends a chill across an entire university and an entire society.”

Iraqi scholars abroad have livestreamed hundreds of lectures on a wide range of subjects to colleagues and students in Iraq when internet connectivity is good enough, and delivered on DVDs when it is not

Al-Handal first left Iraq in 2011 due to a growing lack of academic freedom. “The facilities I had before were no longer available to me,” he says. The Scholar Rescue Fund found him a yearlong fellowship in Florida, where he analyzed satellite images that showed the effects of water shortages in southern Iraq and published the results in the journal Wetlands. But when he returned home to Basra after the fellowship, the situation there was worse than when he left. “So I collected some water samples with a phytoplankton net, concentrated them into a small plastic vial, and then brought that in my suitcase to Sweden,” he says.

As an IIE-SRF fellow at the University of Gothenburg, Al-Handal is again able to use his expertise in taxonomy of marine diatoms, a type of microalgae, with the added advantage of direct access to a scanning electron microscope, which he didn’t have in Iraq. He has already published papers on six new species he found in the water samples he collected from Sawa Lake in southern Iraq. “The microalgae communities are completely different from what I observed there in the 1990s due to the huge change in environmental conditions,” he says, explaining that the salinity of the groundwater-fed lake has increased threefold because of frequent drought.

Al-Handal is also collaborating with his host at the university, fellow professor Angela Wulff, to analyze samples of polar algae she’s collected in both the Arctic and Antarctic. “It’s very beneficial for me to have someone in my group who is so skilled at doing species identification so we can sort out issues about how biodiversity changes with increased temperature and melting,” Wulff says. She hopes to help Al-Handal find a way to stay in Sweden and continue working with her team after the end of his two-year fellowship — and that her university will host more at-risk researchers, for the benefit of both parties.

“There’s so much competence and skill among the people who arrive here or are at risk in their own countries. They can give so much to society and the university, but very often we look upon them as problems instead,” Wulff says. “They should be encouraged so they can continue the work they started in their own countries. If they get stuck, unable to work for a year or two, they can lose their confidence. And things happen fast in science; if you don’t keep up, it gets harder and harder to be involved in research.”

(Credit: Alison Mackey/Discover)

Filling The Gaps

New initiatives in Europe are trying to help fill those gaps for displaced scientists unable to reintegrate into academia through a full-time job or fellowship. “Researchers come to Germany, and they’re a little bit lost because they don’t have access to a library, they can’t have exchange with colleagues. They worked hard and now are sitting around with nothing to do and no one recognizing them for what they’ve done in the past,” says Carmen Bachmann, a professor of tax and finance at the University of Leipzig who founded Chance for Science. The online platform allows displaced researchers to connect with German peers who can provide access to libraries or university events, invite them to give guest lectures, or collaborate on publications and other scientific exchanges.

Leila, an Iranian textile engineer, is one of the scientists participating in the initiative. “Having a network is very important. If you know somebody who can get you in direct conversation with institutions, that can create a way for you to find a job,” she says. Leila and her husband fled Iran after he became a target for arrest due to his active involvement in a liberal opposition group. (She didn’t want her real name published for the same reason.) “I’m still working, not for money, but writing papers, trying to keep myself up to date, and serving as a volunteer reviewer for a well-known journal to improve my CV,” she says. Eventually Leila hopes to return to the field in which she did her master’s research: medical applications of nanotechnology, specifically using synthetic fibers to create minute scaffolds that aid in tissue repair.

Being able to publish papers is crucial for any academic to further their career, but it’s an avenue that can be difficult to access for those no longer affiliated with a university, unfamiliar with international publishing conventions, or struggling to write in a second language. Students and academics at Oxford University in the U.K. have founded a new publication, The Journal of Interrupted Studies, specifically devoted to giving a platform to notable work created in exile. Science in Asylum, an initiative based in Austria, also offers a series of seminars, including sessions on scientific writing and publishing along with information on how to find job openings and get foreign qualifications recognized in Europe.

“Participants in the course had the chance to each write a paper, and we’re working to get local peer reviewers who can give feedback and serve as mentors, and then create a joint publication that will illustrate their qualifications,” says Constantin Scherer, who organized the Science in Asylum project as part of his work at the Vienna-based Centre for Social Innovation. “It will be a reference for them when they can look for a job, to show they’ve been active during the time they were not really able to work.”

Hamdi Alsaffouri, 34, a plant geneticist from Syria who participated in the Science in Asylum seminars, has written his paper based on data from his doctoral thesis about cotton breeding. “Most of our institute in Damascus has now been destroyed, I think. We can’t get anything from our labs there,” says Alsaffouri. Fortunately, he had previously sent a copy of his thesis to a friend in Egypt, and he was able to retrieve the data from him.

A radio interview Alsaffouri did about his situation eventually put him on the radar of a professor at Austria’s Research Center for Forests, and he was offered a three-month training position. “I didn’t earn any money there, but it gave me a chance to see how the research system works here in Austria,” he says. “I liked my work at the lab, and it gave me the hope that I can find a chance here to work in my field. Just this acknowledgement that you are a scientist is enough.”

(Credit: Alison Mackey/Discover)

Starting From Scratch

Tetiana Goidenko, a landscape planner from Ukraine, has experienced only a small taste of that recognition since fleeing the unstable military and political situation in her country for Austria in 2015. Fighting in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatist forces and the Ukrainian military has killed almost 10,000 people and displaced more than 1 million since early 2014. Through Science in Asylum, Goidenko volunteered as a teacher in KinderUni, a summer science program for kids in Vienna, teaching them about different properties of soil and giving them hands-on experience with growing plants.

“It was good to feel like my knowledge was necessary again,” Goidenko says. But it was a far cry from her previous work at a Ukrainian university, where she researched and taught coastal environment management in the face of climate change. “I still hope to meet someone who can hire me in the land management field,” she says. “I miss my work, and it’s very hard for me to just sit at home.” Goidenko is studying German and taking night-school classes in finance and economics to broaden her options while trying to get her scientific qualifications recognized in Austria.

Every country in the European Union has different requirements for acceptance of qualifications from abroad, a process made even more challenging for refugees who may have fled without copies of their diplomas, or lost them on their often difficult journeys. Tamim Chalati, 38, a pharmacist from Syria, has a Ph.D. from the University of Paris-Sud. However, he still has to get his bachelor’s diploma from Syria recognized by the United Kingdom, and he has to take exams in both pharmacy and language to improve his job prospects in the U.K., where he is currently an IIE-SRF fellow at York University.

“It would take another two years of training to get the equivalent of my first degree in Syria,” says Chalati, who is working on ways to use nanotechnology to deliver drugs into the human body more efficiently and with fewer side effects. His wife, a dermatologist, is preparing for four qualification exams of her own.

Syrian plant geneticist Hamdi Alsaffouri was able to get a position at Austria’s Research Center for Forests after his academic home in Damascus was destroyed. (Collage photo courtesy Bildungszentrum für Wald)

Chalati understands why some colleagues still in Aleppo are hesitant about leaving, despite the dangers, the electricity and water shortages, and a cost of living that has increased at least tenfold since the war began. “In Syria, I had a permanent position at my university; here in the U.K., I have to begin my career over in a completely different system, where you have to apply for grants to finance your projects,” he says. “I’m now working on short-term contracts rather than being on academic staff. The older people, especially, at my university in Aleppo don’t want to leave and start all over.”

Chalati and his wife hope to be able to stay in the U.K. until the situation improves in Syria. As the bloody war there rages into its seventh year, that possibility seems remote. But it’s a hope that many displaced researchers share: that they can someday return to their countries, bringing with them the new knowledge, connections and ideas they have acquired during their exile.

“Our fellows want very much to go back home, and about half of them do, even under situations that are still dangerous,” says Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education. He recalls one Iraqi science professor who applied for an IIE-SRF fellowship after receiving threats, but decided to go back home after two years abroad. “The power shortages in the area where he lived in Iraq meant everyone had a generator running on diesel and spewing out carbon. This professor discovered that if you plant myrtle, which we usually dig up as a weed, it absorbs a tremendous amount of carbon,” Goodman says. The scientist turned this finding into a research paper, which he subsequently published.

“He said that psychologically it would have been difficult for him to remain in Iraq after the threats; the stresses and strains of daily life there were so overpowering,” Goodman says, adding that the researcher’s time abroad as a fellow reinvigorated his commitment to science. “Seeing normal scholarly activity at the university where he did his fellowship gave him the courage to go back home and get back into research immediately.”

Jennifer Hattam is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. 

This article originally appeared in print as, "Science, Interrupted."

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