NEWS FEATURE

Hunted, haunted, stateless and scared: the stories of refugee scientists

Displaced researchers face huge challenges making lives abroad, even if they find work.
Mohamed Ali Mohamed

Mohamed Ali Mohamed Credit: Justin Jin for Nature

When the war in Syria reached Aleppo in 2012, geographer Mohamed Ali Mohamed fled with his family to a town about 50 kilometres to the north. For two years, he trekked back on public transport every day to teach at the University of Aleppo, despite the constant street fighting and air strikes. By 2014, it had become too dangerous to continue. Then money and food began to dwindle.

Ali Mohamed had been invited to do research in Germany, but there was no easy way to get out of Syria. So he paid a smuggler to guide him into Turkey. He went in the dark of night — leaving his family behind — and travelled with three other men through the mountains on foot, “with the constant fear of being shot to death”, he says. From there, he made his way to Berlin.

Ali Mohamed is a refugee scientist — and one of the lucky few able to carry on his research. He is working in Germany, thanks to a new fellowship for displaced scientists offered by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Berlin. The initiative is one of several that act as lifelines for scholars who are forced to flee because of their research, political views or, like Ali Mohamed, war in their home countries.

For the organizations helping threatened scholars, the goal is more than saving lives. Countries in political upheaval risk losing their intellectual capital when researchers disappear. “They are the future of higher education in their countries. If they are killed or displaced, ruined societies can't be rebuilt,” says Stephen Wordsworth, executive director of the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara) in London.

And the number of researchers in peril is skyrocketing: in the past two years, Cara has seen applications for support climb from 3–4 per week to 15–20. The organization is supporting record numbers, says Wordsworth: “The highest since our early years in the 1930s.”

But with the fighting in Iraq and Syria dragging on for years, a short-term job can seem like weathering a typhoon in a canoe. Refugee scientists who spoke to Nature expressed enormous gratitude towards the people and programmes who helped them, but they still face relentless challenges even after landing jobs. Visa troubles haunt them. Housing contracts and health insurance are tough to secure. Researchers struggle with unfamiliar tasks such as writing grant proposals and competing for support. And many find it difficult to focus on work with their families stuck in limbo elsewhere.

“We do recognize that many of our scholars have an uphill battle beyond 1–2 years,” says Sarah Willcox, director of the Institute of International Education's Scholar Rescue Fund in New York City. Her organization and others have stepped up their efforts to collaborate and provide support to researchers beyond their temporary job placements. Without this help, she says, “many of our scholars would be lost and their voices silenced forever”.

Community ties

If it had not been for his mentor's help, Ali Mohamed would probably still be stuck in Syria — cold, hungry and without any hope of a career. Hilmar Schröder, a geomorphologist at the Humboldt University of Berlin, served as Ali Mohamed's adviser when the Syrian completed his PhD in soil cartography at the university. After getting his doctorate in 2010, Ali Mohamed returned to Syria to take a position as a lecturer at the University of Aleppo. He told Schröder that he was needed there and it was a permanent faculty position.

After the war first broke out in 2011, Schröder often sent concerned e-mails to his former student. “The reply was always 'everything is fine in Aleppo',” says Schröder.

But soon it wasn't. In July 2012, the fighting came to Aleppo and Ali Mohamed's apartment complex was bombed, so he and his family moved in with relatives near the Turkish border. When he had to quit his job in 2014, Ali Mohamed e-mailed the distressing news to Schröder, who leapt into action. He rallied Ali Mohamed's former colleagues in Berlin, as well as the university dean and the department director. It took a few months, but they scraped together enough money to fund a one-year position as a guest scientist and e-mailed Ali Mohamed with the offer.

In November 2015, he decided to attempt the overland trip to Turkey. Once there, he applied for a German visa, and the next month Schröder picked him up from the airport in Berlin.

A recently retired colleague of Schröder's, who knew Ali Mohamed from his student days, took him to a Christmas party. “I was greeted very warmly and got presents from everyone,” Ali Mohamed recalls. The colleague bought him winter clothes, invited him to stay with her and helped him navigate bureaucracy. He stayed for months. “Without her he would not have managed it,” says Schröder.

About six months into Ali Mohamed's stay, he won a fellowship from the Humboldt Foundation's Philipp Schwartz Initiative, through which German academic institutions can apply for funds to host a refugee scholar. The fellowship offers up to €3,500 (US$3,700) a month for up to 24 months, plus a €12,000 lump sum to the host institution to cover additional help the scholar may need. The fellowship was “my salvation”, Ali Mohamed says. Together with department support, he can now count on about three years of funding. He is working on a project to create sophisticated land-use maps of metropolitan regions for urban planning.

But he cannot fully concentrate on his work. “I am constantly in fear for my family,” he says, with the reddened and glassy eyes of someone who doesn't sleep much.

At the time Ali Mohamed left for Turkey, he felt it was too risky for his small children to travel with him, especially without a Turkish visa. His family had planned to make the trip in 2016, with assurance from the German authorities that they would be granted a German visa from the embassy in Turkey. But on the day they set out, Turkey closed its border with Syria, and they are now stuck in a refugee camp. Schröder says that he and his colleagues have been in frequent contact with the German Federal Foreign Office to get Ali Mohamed's family out. But the political and logistical roadblocks have been insurmountable. The German embassy in Syria has been shut, and they are unable to travel anywhere else to obtain a German visa.

Ali Mohamed sends money to his family for provisions, but conditions in the camp are poor at best. Winters are particularly harsh. “I am especially worried about the health and safety of my children,” he says.

On the run​​​​​​​

Kassem Alsayed Mahmoud

Kassem Alsayed Mahmoud Credit: Justin Jin for Nature

Bioscientist Kassem Alsayed Mahmoud's torment began in 2010. He was conscripted into the Syrian army, despite the fact that he was 36 years old and held an assistant professorship at Al-Furat University in Dayr az Zawr. He was told that he was required to serve for only a year.

But when war broke out, he was ordered to remain until the revolution ended. After 19 months of service, and with no end to the bloody conflict in sight, he couldn't take it any more. He deserted. “If I were caught by the regime, I would have been killed,” he says.

Alsayed Mahmoud hid at the homes of various friends and family members, fleeing from place to place as the fighting in Syria intensified. In September 2012, his brother, who was helping him hide, was killed during fighting in Dayr az Zawr. “The situation had become so dangerous that my family pushed me to leave immediately,” says Alsayed Mahmoud.

He fled by motorcycle and then car to Turkey, and sneaked across the border because he did not have a visa. A friend told him about Scholars at Risk, an organization based in New York City. He contacted them to help him find a job, but they were overwhelmed and giving priority to applicants in immediate danger. So in 2013 he flew to Qatar to live with another brother, yet he couldn't find a job there or in neighbouring countries.

The following year, he decided to return to Turkey and look for jobs in Europe. He contacted Scholars at Risk again, and this time the agency found him a one-year postdoc position in the food-science department at Ghent University in Belgium. The only trouble was getting there.

Like Ali Mohamed, Alsayed Mahmoud had contacts in Europe. He had lived in France for six years and become fluent in French while studying food processing and biotechnology for his doctorate at the National Polytechnic Institute of Lorraine in Nancy.

With the help of a friend from those years who had pushed his plight at the French consulate, Alsayed Mahmoud managed to travel to France on a tourist visa, but he struggled to obtain a Belgian visa. He decided to apply for asylum in France and was granted refugee status for ten years. Eventually, he secured a work visa to enter Belgium.

In August 2015, Alsayed Mahmoud finally arrived at Ghent University. He experimented with exotic types of chocolate, such as that made of camel's milk or flavoured with black cumin seeds. The research wasn't his area of expertise and his French-language skills weren't particularly helpful in the Flemish part of Belgium, but he was happy to be mentally engaged and to expand his lab skills. A few months into his postdoc, he heard about an opportunity in the French-speaking part of Belgium: the Free University of Brussels (ULB) announced that it would provide ten fellowships for refugee scientists. Alsayed Mahmoud applied and was accepted.

Since August 2016, he has been studying environmentally efficient methods for degrading potato waste from industrial processing — an interesting new area for him, he says. “I can gain experience and learn new skills.” And his one-year postdoc position has been extended for another year.

This has all allowed him to settle into life in Brussels, where he has become a mentor to the other refugee postdocs at the ULB, says Serge Hiligsmann, head of the university's biotechnology and bioprocess division.

Last year, Alsayed Mahmoud travelled to Turkey to marry his deceased brother's widow, and become a father to her three children. The ULB is helping the family to apply for a Belgian visa, and Alsayed Mahmoud hopes they will join him in Brussels soon.

“People are so helpful and kind,” says Alsayed Mahmoud. “I never felt like I was not accepted.”

Homesick

Zamir Al Salim, a geoscientist from Iraq, never felt that kind of welcome at the British university that offered him temporary haven. He describes his experience abroad as one of “no one caring” and constantly feeling “alone”.

His refugee story began in June 2014, when the Islamist terrorist group ISIS entered his home city of Mosul. A university lecturer in geoscience and an outspoken critic of ISIS, Al Salim — whose name has been changed to protect him — says he was threatened and became a target for assassination. So he fled to Turkey with only a briefcase-sized bag.

At first he stayed with friends, but he would leave when he felt that he was imposing. He could not find a job and his money ran out, forcing him sometimes to sleep in parks with other refugees. “It was a nightmare for me,” he says.

In September, he learnt that he had been accepted into a training programme on managing artefacts in Japan. But first he needed money to reach Iraq or Oman to obtain a visa. Scholars at Risk gave him a grant to get to Oman, and then the training programme paid for his trip to Japan. Over the course of the two-month programme, he managed to save the equivalent of about $200 of his living allowance by eating only one meal per day.

After he returned to Turkey, Cara found him a one-year postdoc position at a university in the United Kingdom. Following another round of visa troubles, he finally arrived at his host institution in January 2015.

But Al Salim's excitement soon faded to disillusionment. The university placed him in a department only peripherally related to his expertise, and gave him little guidance. “He was paradoxically treated both very well and extremely badly,” says Jack Westerly (not his real name). Westerly, who worked in a neighbouring department, had spent years in Mosul conducting fieldwork. He befriended Al Salim, and had him transferred to his own department, where Al Salim could expand on his training in preserving cultural heritage.

But Westerly became increasingly alarmed at the lack of a plan for his friend. On the one hand, it was noble of the university to host him, says Westerly. But “it was as if they merely checked off their 'good deed' box and then forgot about him”, he says. Westerly was also very concerned about Al Salim's mental health. He often expressed guilt over living in comfort and safety while his family and other refugees were suffering, says Westerly. Al Salim is not married, but has parents and siblings in Iraq.

Meanwhile, time was running out. Westerly pleaded with the university to extend Al Salim's postdoc, but was told that he wasn't performing. “Administration were comparing him to any other postdoc. The expectations of him were ludicrous,” says Westerly.

By the end of 2015, Cara had found another institution to host him. Al Salim started his job at the new university in September 2016 and even began teaching, but he struggled. “I felt even more down and lonely. I didn't want to leave the house,” he says. “I was seeing [reports of] refugees that were suffering. I started to feel like I don't know who I am. This is not me.”

In November 2016, he resigned. “Some people pleaded with me to change my decision. I told them I just don't feel well.” Back in the Kurdish-controlled region of Iraq, he now feels better, he says, even though reliving his memories by telling his story to Nature over Skype was “painful”. He lives on his savings and volunteers where he can. “Here I see students or children, and I help them and that makes me happy.” But there are times when he regrets his decision. He sleeps on the floor, has no access to warm water and is often cold. But he still feels more at home where he is than he did in Britain. He longs to return to Mosul, but with the city still in the throes of battle, his friends tell him it's still too dangerous. “They say, 'Maybe you will end your life there'.

The future

In risking his life to go home, Al Salim isn't alone. More than 90% of Iraqi scholars helped by Cara have returned.

That is not an option for researchers such as Ali Mohamed. He would like to stay in Germany, where he has “found community and friends”. But he recognizes that finding a permanent job in science there will be difficult — such positions are rare, and he faces stiff competition from peers more accustomed to the ways of Western science.

“Some scholars completely leave the research field,” says Enno Aufderheide, secretary-general of the Humboldt Foundation. “Some become teachers or sell scientific equipment in countries where they have special cultural knowledge or language skills.”

Alsayed Mahmoud also knows he will struggle to succeed in science in Europe, despite his European PhD. His refugee status limits his movement in the European Union, which puts him at a disadvantage compared with other applicants. Also, he has a three-year gap in his CV and, at 43, he is older than most postdocs who might apply for similar positions. “You have to start your life from zero,” he says.

If Syria were safe and there were job prospects there, he would return home. But he holds little hope. “I can't see that there will be a peaceful solution even within five years,” he says. And although his job is secure for now, that doesn't ease his anguish over all that has vanished. “Imagine you have your home, your life, your friends, your history — and in one moment, you lose all of it.”