Adam Levy: 00:03
Hello, I’m Adam Levy and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. This episode: displaced scientists.
A research career can present challenges, whatever the context, from the pressure to publish to searching for a stable academic position.
But what happens when progress and stability are ripped apart, and a scientist needs to move, not for the sake of their career, but for their very safety?
There can be a host of reasons that researchers are driven to flee the country that they have begun their careers in, from war to discrimination.
In this episode, we’ll be speaking to two scientists about how conflict affected their career paths. And we’'ll also learn about an organization that tries to keep scientific careers progressing, even when life suddenly shifts.
What’s more, each episode in this series concludes with a follow-up sponsored slot from the International Science Council (the ISC) about how it’s exploring freedom, responsibility and safety in science.
First up today I spoke with Hassoni Alodaini, a Yemeni researcher now based in the Netherlands. His academic focus was the environmental impact of industrial waste. We started our conversation by talking about where Hassoni was in his career when it was torn apart by the war in Yemen.
Hassoni Alodaini: 01:40
I moved to Morocco in 2005 for the baccalaureate study. After the baccalaureate I get the master degree in the Abdelmalek Essaâdi University in Tangier, in Morocco.
And then when I have finished the Master, I get a place for the PhD. But I come back to Yemen for the money, for the studying. My government stopped the money.
Adam Levy: 02:06
What caused the disruption to the funding for your PhD?
Hassoni Alodaini: 02:10
Because the war. The beginning for the war. All the embassies leave the country. The second thing, the Ministry of Education stopped all money for students.
Adam Levy: 02:14
And when did the war begin?
Hassoni Alodaini: 02:17
In 2015. I don’t have work. I didn’t have money. And I didn’t have safety. I was, every second, I was worried. I live in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. Every day we have problem.
Adam Levy: 02:43
And why did you decide to leave Yemen?
Hassoni Alodaini: 02:46
I try to find any embassy in another country. So I go to Egypt. It was easy for us to go to Egypt by medical report.
After eight months in Egypt I go to the Morocco embassy. I tried many times to get a visa but they didn’t give me. Then I find an illegal way to go to Europe.
Adam Levy: 03:12
Can you describe the journey to Europe?
Hassoni Alodaini: 03:14
I take a tourist visa to Russia. The transit was in Greece. When I arrived Greece I didn’t continue with my trip. Through Greece, I stay in Greece one year). I tried to take a plane to another country because in Greece, it was a dangerous situation.
I didn’t have work. After one year I walk to Albania. Then to Kosovo, walking. Then to Serbia, and from Serbia to Czechoslovakia. From there I travelled by taxi Uber to Germany. From Germany by the train to Netherlands.
Adam Levy: 03:55
So that three-year journey must have been very difficult. Can you describe how it affected you personally?
Hassoni Alodaini: 04:03
Yeah, eight months in Egypt without work, without help. I was every day worried from the die in Greece. Sometimes I sleep at the road.
Sometimes I didn’t have anything to eat. One year in Greece. I don’t know, I can’t explain but it was so, so hard.
Adam Levy: 04:26
Can you describe what your life in the Netherlands is like?
Hassoni Alodaini: 04:31
Yeah, Netherlands is good. And I have residence for five years. I have a house and after one year, when I arrived here after one year, I brought my wife. Now I live with with my wife and my new daughter. She is seven.
Adam Levy: 04:52
Hassoni Alodaini: 04:54
Adam Levy: 04:52
How does it feel to have your research disrupted by the war, by all this illegal, very difficult travelling?
Hassoni Alodaini: 05:04
Truthfully, I feel that I waste all the effort that I have done in the past. I feel that I begin from new.
Adam Levy: 05:11
Do you think you could continue research in the future?
Hassoni Alodaini: 05:17
I hope. I hope to finish my PhD and work in my field also. If the war stopped in Yemen, I want to come back to my country to see my family, my friends, my country, yes.
It’s hard to begin a new life in another country. It’s new, new language, new people, new traditional, new, new things to learn.
Also new weather. It’s hard weather, It’s cold here in Netherlands. It’s not like my country.
Adam Levy: 05:53
How do you think that the world can support displaced researchers like you better?
Hassoni Alodaini: 06:00
The researchers have not rights. They give them not visa to go any country. Now my friend in Yemen, they can’t go anywhere. Just Egypt or Jordan.
Adam Levy: 06:13
Do you still think about the war a lot? And the people in Yemen who are still there?
Hassoni Alodaini: 06:20
Yeah, sure. My first daughter in Yemen lives with her mother, my ex-wife. I speak with her every day.
And also my brothers, my sisters, my family Everyday they have problem. They are afraid, they are worried, they need money. It’s not normal life.
Adam Levy: 06:40
And do you feel safe in the Netherlands?
Hassoni Alodaini: 06:44
Yes, I can tell anything. I can do what I want. But in Yemen I couldn’t speak.
Adam Levy: 06:51
That was Hassoni Alodaini. Hassoni’s career has for now been halted because of the war and his relocation.
But this isn’t the case for all researchers. Some are able to find ways to continue work once they move to another country. Even if this work comes with limitations, and may only be temporary. This is what Fares el Hasan has experienced.
He now works as a geoinformation science specialist at Utrecht University, also in the Netherlands. But previously he’s researched water management and drought. Fares is Syrian, and the Syrian Civil War had a profound impacts on his life and work.
He had a scholarship for a Master’s in France, but the outbreak of the conflict totally changed the path of his career and his life.
Fares el Hasan: 07:43
That time, the government asked us to do a French language course. Actually, in the end of this course, the war started. When I came back to Syria, the war was worse and worse.
And then the government decided not to send us to France, because the relation between France and Syria at that time broken.
I was living in the east of Aleppo, where it was controlled by a revolutionist. And my work at Aleppo University was controlled by government, Syrian government. At the beginning, I was travelling from the eastern part to the western part. But it was really difficult and dangerous because there was snipers on the road.
And one time I remember there was a bullet, I feel the bullet near my ear. But that time I decided to stop travelling. And I also decided to leave Aleppo, to the place where my parents were living in a small village.
Adam Levy: 08:49
Can you explain what happened when you were in this small village that your parents lived in?
Fares el Hasan: 08:54
At the beginning it was controlled by the revolutionists. Then I decided to look for scholarship by myself. And I found Erasmus Mundus program. And I applied for that program and I remembered I succeed to get scholarship to do Masters at Wageningen University.
At that time in 2013 I applied and then also at that time ISIS entered that area and controlled that area and then I decided okay, it’s time to to leave.
Adam Levy: 09:28
A lot of people listening have no idea what it’s like. Can you explain what it was like to actually be in an area which was controlled by ISIS?
Fares el Hasan: 09:39
Yeah, it’s really, it’s really dangerous because killing people for them is really easy.
So you have to be very very careful, I remember. And all the people afraid. And there is no freedom at all.
Also the economic situation was very, very bad. And I also decided, okay, it's time to leave this country because it’s impossible to live in these circumstances.
Adam Levy: 10:04
How did you feel at that time? How was it affecting you emotionally?
Fares el Hasan: 10:09
Yeah, at that time, I was feeling like, okay, there's no future. And my only hope is this scholarship.
Adam Levy: 10:16
Can you describe how you actually travelled to the Netherlands? How did you make it from Syria to Europe?
Fares el Hasan: 10:25
The difficult part to enter Turkey because there was no legal way to enter Turkey from ISIS side. If you want to enter Turkey, you have to look for smuggler. And I remember at that time, yeah, it was dangerous to do that. But I had to take the risk.
When I entered Turkey, I immediately travelled to Ankara. And in the same day, I travelled to Istanbul. I took flight. I told them I need flight. What price I don’t mind, I don’t mind.
And I remember at three, there was a flight to to the Netherlands. And I took that flight to the Netherlands.
Adam Levy: 11:03
And then when you did arrive in the Netherlands, were you able to just start your life there immediately what happened?
Fares el Hasan: 11:11
At the beginning I remember I had to, it’s really a completely different world. I follow the email that they sent me, an email how to arrive to the university. I followed the email, then the university there was person took me to my room. They arranged everything for me.
But the first night was difficult, I remember. Because I was alone. And I’m thinking oh, I am very, very far away from my family. It’s really long distance. But after that, when the new students start to come and I start to have contact with other students, life starts to be nice and happy again.
Adam Levy: 11:50
And can you describe how you were able to adapt to this very different surrounding that you found yourself in?
Fares el Hasan: 11:57
It was for me really difficult, completely different culture. Your just try to look for people from some background, like students from the Gulf countries.
And gradually I started also to have contact with Dutch students and European and even international students from China, from South America. Yes. And then I start to learn about new things.
Adam Levy: 12:19
And how did your career develop once you were in the Netherlands?
Fares el Hasan: 12:24
The first two years, I did my Masters. But also it was difficult for me because I all the time was worrying about my family and Syria.
After graduation, the immigration authority here in the Netherlands contacted me and they told me, your resident permits are about to expire, and you need to decide what are you going to do? I told them, okay, I will be a refugee here in the Netherlands.
And it took for me, I think, about six months from the beginning and till the end to get like, five years permit resident. And after that I was able to find job. And my first job was at Rainforest Alliance in Amsterdam.
It was really nice job. And I enjoyed a lot. But all the time, I was looking for PhD and opportunity to do research or to go back to academia. And in 2018, I remember there was severe drought in the Netherlands. I remember I contacted my supervisor at TU Delft, and he helped me to develop. And then I did my research at TU Delft. And in the meantime, also I found job at Utrecht University. I am in Utrecht University like helping, like supporting staff. I like my work.
But for me, what I was looking for is to do PhD and to after PhD is like becoming a professor or assistant professor.
But I found it very difficult here to complete in this way. I hope, yeah, in the future to be able to do a PhD, but I’m not sure if this is feasible or not.
Adam Levy: 14:02
What do you think that countries around the world could do to support displaced researchers better?
Fares el Hasan: 14:09
Yeah, in the Netherlands, there was a lot of support. But it’s really difficult because, like for me, I was young when I came to the Netherlands. It was, like, possible to do Master and after that immediately a PhD.
But yeah, I wasn’t able because my family was in Syria. I was worried about my family. I was entered in a refugee procedure.
So I get gap and then I start working at Rainforest Alliance, so the gap become bigger. It would be nice to get the support from the beginning, not after getting my permit resident. It’s better the support start from the beginning.
Adam Levy: 14:48
That was Fares el Hasan. We've heard a lot today about the limitations and challenges researchers face when they have to flee.
But what can host institutions and academics do to counter this situation? Around the world there are organizations that try to act as matchmakers linking displaced researchers with departments that welcome them and their expertise. One such organization is the Council for at Risk Academics, or CARA, in the UK.
I called up CARA’s director Stephen Wordsworth to find out more about the organization and the work that they do.
Stephen Wordsworth: 15:28
CARA is a charity. It was founded in 1933 by leading academics and scientists in the UK, led by William Beveridge, who was then the director of the London School of Economics.
And it came about just after the Nazis had come to power. And one of their first edicts was to ban non-Aryans, as they call them, from the public service.
Of course, the target was mainly Jews, and a lot of senior academics who were Jewish origin, or Jewish connections, were being expelled from their jobs at German universities.
Beveridge was naturally horrified by this. He got a group of people together, and within a few weeks, 41 of them signed what is the founding statement of what is now CARA, which was to raise funds to support academics who were at risk.
Adam Levy: 16:16
Can you give a sense of the range of crises that CARA has had to respond to in the past?
Stephen Wordsworth: 16:22
After the war of course, at first I think people thought that's probably the job was done. Of course it wasn’t done at all because of the rise of communism with the Iron Curtain and all that, and a whole range of other crises.
And also, CARA’s boundaries widened all the time. So eventually, we ended up having a lot of people coming to us from apartheid South Africa, from parts of South America where there were military juntas, and many other parts of the world where they have a crisis of one sort or another, and where, essentially, academics became targets.
And I think academics tend to become targets, perhaps second only to journalists, in the sense that they they’re people who ask awkward questions. They listen politely to the answers they give them, but then have more questions.
Adam Levy: 17:04
Any reason that someone might have to flee their country and to seek refuge will be a huge disruption to their lives, is this disruption shifted or any different for academics?
Stephen Wordsworth: 17:17
The same disruption and of course, the people we’re helping, usually don’t come by themselves. They will usually have a partner or may have children.
So often, what we’re trying to do is find a way of supporting a whole family.
And our objective always is to support people through what we call our fellowship program. We work with universities here and in other parts of the world, to arrange places as well.
But the aim always is that they will ultimately be able to go back, if the crisis will be quite short, lasting, and then they can go back. In other cases, they cannot do that. So we have people now, for example, from Syria, who came out in eight, eight or more years ago, who still tell us that they want to go back.
But when that day is going to come, we don't know. They carry in their heads the intellectual capital of their own countries, and a lot of their own personal experience and learning as well. And it’s really from the point of view of potential university hosts here in the UK and elsewhere, that has value.
So they’re not just coming to be supported. They’re coming, bringing with them their own experience and knowledge, sharing that while they’re here. And that can then be the basis of lasting partnerships
Adam Levy: 18:24
For academics who do have to urgently relocate, what are the kinds of barriers that they would face in terms of continuing their research, continuing their careers?
Stephen Wordsworth: 18:35
Well, the way it work is we have a network now of over 133 UK university and research institute partners. But essentially, when someone contacts us, we go through a process as quickly as we can of establishing who they are, establishing their qualifications.
And so by the time we go out to one of our partner universities, saying here is somebody we think you might be interested in hosting.
And when that university, then, as we hope agrees to take that person on, they will be the visa sponsor.
And it’s important, these people we’re helping, they’re not coming here as refugees or asylum seekers. Without some sort of support, or course they’d have very few opportunities, they wouldn’t get to get a visa to get away.
And in some cases, if they’re coming out of somewhere like Syria during the war, they might have been killed. Coming out of Afghanistan. And of course, a lot of Afghans have come to us for support, where very recently the Taliban confirmed that women would no longer be allowed into higher education at all. Female part of the faculty, every university and all the female students are suddenly at a complete dead end. So there are a lot of initiatives out there trying to help people.
But unfortunately, it’s a never ending task in some ways, because the range of issues that people are escaping is pretty wide.
It can be somebody, could have been a war, can be somebody who has written or said something which is upset somebody else, that somebody else could be a government, it could be an extremist group of some sort who might decide that what this person has said is blasphemous.
It can be something that is unique to that person. It could be their ethnicity, their religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and countries where that can get you into trouble.
Adam Levy: 20:13
Could you give a sense of the scale of the impact that CARA has been able to make over the years?
Stephen Wordsworth: 20:19
If you go back to the 1930s, I think we had between 1500 and 2000 people who were helped one way or another. Sixteen went on to get Nobel Prizes.
Adam Levy: 20:27
We've been speaking about all of this in very, I guess, in very general terms. I just wonder whether you have any particular personal anecdotes or stories or researchers you’ve worked with.
Stephen Wordsworth: 20:38
I think in general, and the people we've worked with, they’re very varied, a wide variety of backgrounds, American countries, different parts of the world. What is striking is how, once they are here, they really just want to get on with their academic work and their academic careers.
And that for them is what they’re holding on to through all the tragedy and upset going on around them, whatever the situation was they’re getting away from. That gives their lives meaning and purpose.
And when we meet them, it’s really very emotional. And it’s really very striking how people feel really, very pleased at what we’ve been able to what we’ve been able to do to help them, and to get them away.
From their point of view a chance to continue their careers, build their futures again, having at one point, many of them used to must have seemed. almost lost everything.
Adam Levy: 21:26
That was Steven Wordsworth, the last of our interviewees for today’s episode. In this series, we're looking at many of the ways freedom and safety can be affected by in-person interactions.
But how does the online world affect researchers’ ability to work? For better and for worse? We'll answer that question in next week’s episode.
Now it’s time for our sponsored slot from the International Science Council about how it’s exploring freedom, responsibility and safety in science.
Thanks for listening. I’m Adam Levy.
Peter Gluckman 22:35
If we can build trust through science, that may well lead to greater trust in other aspects of the multilateral tensions that are there at the moment. Now, that may sound Utopian, but in fact, I think it’s a very real, real potential for the role of science.
Saja Al Zoubi 22:25
Feelings of isolation are very common among scientists and researchers during the war. Questions persist as to what is the future of knowledge production in the home country? What are the challenges to rebuild the home country? Where are female scientists in all of those?
Marnie Chesterton 22:45
Hello, and welcome to this podcast series from the International Science Council on feeedom and responsibility in science. I’m Marnie Chesterton, and this time we’re looking at the role of the state.
What responsibilities do states have when it comes to these issues? Should countries in conflict collaborate with each other scientifically? And how do political tensions or wars affect the integrity of science and the lives of scientists?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights implies the right to participate in free and responsible science, and in 2017, UNESCO developed recommendations on how countries should support science, promote ethical conduct, and give scientists the freedom to carry out research that can provide value to society.
Peter Gluckman 23:44
One-hundred and ninety-seven countries signed up to their obligations. In 2021, UNESCO reviewed progress on the recommendations, and only 37 countries made voluntary reports on how they were performing.
Marnie Chesterton 24:00
This is Sir Peter Gluckman, President of the ISC and former Chief Scientific Advisor to prime ministers in New Zealand.
Peter Gluckman 24:08
The issue is, of course, countries willingly sign up. In reality, you’re then reliant on the goodwill and the nature of the governments in an individual country for how it’s actually reflected into practice. And that’s the nature of the reality of national interest versus multilateral agreements. And certainly, the International Science Council will be taking an active role in how countries are following the recommendations they signed up to in 2017.
Marnie Chesterton 24:39
Given that it’s easier for nations to sign up to recommendations than it is for them to implement them, what can the scientific community do to make sure those responsibilities are upheld?
Peter Gluckman 24:51
Every country faces a set of issues that required science to solve them, and scientists need to engage with their society, and they need to understand and learn the skills of interacting with the policy community. That generally means scientific organizations need development, be they academies or disciplinary bodies, and that can be done in countries at every scale of development, from the least developed to the most developed country.
The International Science Council can help countries develop those skills, and it has its own role in working with UNESCO and with the United Nations system to encourage the use of science for better policymaking, for the health of the planet, the health of ourselves, and for economic growth around the world.
Marnie Chesterton 25:41
According to Peter, for science to live up to its potential, states need to develop a kind of science ecosystem.
Peter Gluckman 25:49
First of all, it must have people who are knowledge generators. It must have universities. Depending on the scale of the country, it may need research institutes.
Secondly, it needs to organize its scientific bodies pluralistically, so that it can synthesize knowledge, which may come from within the country or from internationally, to actually be of value to society.
And thirdly, ideally, it needs to work out with governments, the skills of knowledge brokerage, so it can advise governments and advise society of what science can do, but equally, what is beyond science and science cannot answer. I think humility and trust are the key attributes of that interface.
Marnie Chesterton 26:33
Helping to grow ecosystems like this is part of the ISC’s vision to advance science as a global public good. But this effort faces huge challenges in the years ahead, amid global crises like climate change and pandemics, as well as geopolitical shifts. And the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022 has brought renewed attention to complex issues of science, conflict and collaboration.
Peter Gluckman 27:02
Science is at the heart of conflicts because science drives technologies. The history of warfare is effectively the history of technologies. And so you can understand the difficulties that countries in conflict have, finding the boundary between where collaboration continues to be possible, as we’re seeing at the present time in the space endeavour, and where collaboration is obviously not possible.
My own view is that the key issue is what happens when the conflict resolves. All the parties know that science will be critical in the post-acute conflict phase. But I think in the acute phase of conflict, we’ve just got to accept that there will be other issues in play. So I think science can play a role, and certainly, that’s what we in the ISC see our role will be when we get past the hot phase of the war.
Marnie Chesterton 27:58
So science does have an important role in building relationships and diplomacy after conflict. But what happens when states fail in their responsibilities towards science, like when they collapse because of war or when they impose political and ideological agendas on science?
Saja Al Zoubi 28:17
The scientific environment in Syria got affected significantly by war, as international sanctions, lack of facilities, local bans to collaborate with international academic and research centres, in addition to lack of research quality and quantity. So all of these things, in addition to domestic chaos and regional tension.
Marnie Chesterton 28:41
This is Saja Al Zoubi, a development economist at Saint Mary’s University in Canada, who worked as a scientist in Syria.
Saja Al Zoubi 28:49
Governmental researchers and scientists are not allowed to cooperate or work with foreign organizations outside of Syria without a permission. Getting permission was almost an impossible process, which takes a long time and has no guarantee of approval.
So from my experience, I had to use two types of résumé, one for the internal use, so I don’t mention any of the international collaboration, and the other one with all my achievements and my work history. This only for international use; I couldn’t use it in Syria. So these restrictions can cause a lot of trauma and mental and physical exhaustions, and some of these limitations are more severe when it comes to a female researchers.
Marnie Chesterton 29:43
Saja points out that in situations like this, scientists and researchers clearly have different responsibilities and priorities when it comes to their work.
Saja Al Zoubi 29:52
Researchers in war should follow specific tactics to be safe. Field work in conflict areas is very harsh and is very dangerous. So their priority at that time, you know, it’s first to protect yourself, and then you can produce knowledge.
Marnie Chesterton 30:20
But the international scientific community has new responsibilities, too: not to leave the affected scientists behind.
Saja Al Zoubi 31:28
Global and international scientific bodies should take the responsibility to save science and scientists in those collapsed states. In terms of supporting academics and scientists, so here it’s very important to maintain their academic identity, either in Syria or outside of Syria. So this could be by providing access to academic databases and journal, finding mentorship programmes.
And in terms of supporting the future students, the first and foremost is by learning English. Focus on English language and fill gaps in learning individual disciplines. There are many issues here, how to actually support institutions and individuals, in terms of science, but I think such support could impact significantly on those who remain in exile or even those who are still in Syria. And it’s very important to build peace. And I think these are the key words to build peace.
Marnie Chesterton 31:28
That’s it for this episode on freedom and responsibility in science from the International Science Council. The ISC has released a discussion paper on these issues. You can find the paper and learn more about the ISC’s mission online at council.science/podcast.
Next time, we’ll be looking at new technologies. How do scientific responsibilities change in the light of technologies that can bring benefits but also harms? And what can an Indigenous perspective bring to our thinking on these issues?