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In search of a research haven

Leggi in italiano

Ghanya Al-Naqueb fled Yemen in 2017 and now researches nutrition at the University of Trento. Credit: UniTrento/FedericoNardelli.

In Trento, Ghanya Al-Naqueb extracts oil from the seeds of prickly pears sent from Sicily and from her homeland, Yemen. She then analyses their chemical components and checks their effect on cells. The substance has potential for reducing cardiovascular disease and fat accumulation.

Al-Naqueb was a professor of nutritional science at Sanaa University, when she left Yemen in 2017. “I did not want to leave my country, but in 2015 my university was bombed,” she says. “I lost my animal house, samples were rendered useless because there was no electricity, and education was stopped for two years”, she recalls.

After two years in Germany, she arrived in Trento in August 2020, thanks to a grant set up for researchers at risk. The University of Trento is part of Scholars at Risk (SAR) Italy, an organization that coordinates the efforts of more 30 academic institutions in the country, to support researchers under threat. “Universities hosting scholars at risk understand that this saves important voices, allowing them to make advances in their fields, which in turn strengthens global knowledge”, says Sinead O’Gorman, director of SAR Europe.

“It’s a great experience to be in Trento. I am collaborating with three different institutions. The environment is very suitable to work, and they support my research”, says Al-Naqueb. Italy is also benefitting from her work and publications — and potentially from her findings on Sicilian prickly pears.

The war in Ukraine has sparked a range of initiatives for hosting scholars. These include a €1 million fund from the Ministry of University and Research, more than 60 grants from the National Research Council, and a € 200,000 call from the National Institute for Nuclear Physics. This is the latest in a series of emergency responses to the humanitarian crisis that have affected scholars. “Currently, we try to respond to each crisis, but through unstructured responses based on the profile of each individual [researcher]”, says Graziella Gaglione, in charge of mobility outside the European Unity at Sapienza University, in Rome. For example, Sapienza is helping Ukrainian researchers with funds for projects and for visiting professors. “We need to systematize the response to crises,” Gaglione says.

The pioneer organization devoted to researchers in danger, the British CARA (Council for At-Risk Academics) is almost a century old. But experts agree that what really set the scientific community in motion was the Syrian war, that started in 2011 and triggered massive migration. Thousands of researchers fled the country, according to an estimate by UNESCO-TWAS (The World Academy of Sciences).

Gökhan Demir was forced to leave his position at the University in Istanbul, arriving at Florence University in 2020. Credit: G. Demir.

The following crisis was the crackdown on academic freedom in Turkey, from 2016. That crisis forced Gökhan Demir, a political scientist, who then worked at Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul, to seek a position abroad, arriving at Florence University.

Demir was purged in April 2017, sharing the fate of 400 other scholars that had signed the ‘Academics for Peace’ petition in 2016, a call for respecting human rights in the Turkish regions where Kurds are the majority ethnicity. “The pro-government media published our photos and we were called traitors, terrorists, so-called intellectuals and pseudo academics,”, says Demir. Passport use was restricted in retaliation. “Many of us could not leave Turkey despite receiving scholarships from abroad”, he says. Demir applied to the Scholar Rescue Fund, a granting scheme for threatened researchers supported by the US-based Institute of International Education. But, it was not until December 2020, when Turkey lifted the passport restriction, and he could finally leave the country.

The last big crisis before Ukraine happened as the Talibans took over Afghanistan. Homayoon Ganji, a researcher in water management, was planning to go back to his homeland in 2019, after time working in Japan. But his wife, a former UN staff member in Afghanistan, was advised not to return from a conference she was attending in Italy. Ganji joined her and they found themselves stuck in a foreign country they had not chosen. Since then, Ganji has worked at the Universities of Milan and Pisa, after being selected for two grants within the SAR Italy scheme. “In Japan there is more budget for research which makes things easier,” says Ganji. “But in the working environment I feel much more comfortable because the culture is closer [to ours]”.

Afghan researcher Homayoon Ganji, pictured at the University of Pisa where he does research on water management. Credit: Università di Pisa.

The experiences of displaced scientists reveal the shortages of the Italian academic world in welcoming migrants. Demir, for example, reports a string of troubles in getting a residence permit, opening a bank account, finding a place to live, and even accessing healthcare. One challenge all displaced scholars highlight is the short duration of their grants. “I have a 1-year contract and I would need 3 to 5 years,” points out Ganji. “You need time to understand a society, learn a language, attend conferences and get the connections that may bring you to your next contract.”

The problem stems from the fact that the grants are offered on a voluntary base by a variety of institution, with many different funding schemes. “Italy has not thought until now of a holistic, coherent way to deal with this issue”, says Peter McGrath coordinator of the Science Diplomacy Unit and Inter Academy Partnership at UNESCO-TWAS.

Germany and France, on the contrary, have come up with national granting schemes directly targeted to researchers at risk such as the Philipp Schwartz Initiative, launched by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in 2016, or the PAUSE program, launched by the College de France in 2017.

While SAR Italy placed seven scholars in 2020, the Philipp Schwartz Initiative offers 50 positions per year, with a two or three year duration. “It’s not just about getting them to Germany,” says Frank Albrecht, director of the initiative. “We focus a lot on post-fellowship perspective.” Beyond the grant, the programme provides extra money for training in language, career strategy, and networking, he says.

“The primary purpose is to keep scholars in the academic community, to not lose them because they need to find another job,” says Albrecht. “The long-term goal is that they return to the country of origin and rebuild academia, when it becomes possible.”

Other initiatives are designed to help refugee students. Tens of Italian universities take part in the UNICORE project (University Corridors for Refugees) and in another grants scheme by the Ministry of Interior and the Conference of Rectors (CRUI), that offered 100 and 69 grants respectively to refugee students last year.

The experiences of students going through these programmes are mixed. Bidong Paul, a master student of international cooperation at Sapienza University (Rome), of South Sudanese origin, came to Italy in 2021 from Ethiopia, where he had been a refugee since he was 18, through the UNICORE program. He says he is very happy with the programme, and not facing major challenges.

On the contrary, Tamsin Njie, a student of political science at the University of Padova, who came to Italy, from Gambia, through UNICORE in 2015, says he is having a hard time. He says his current grant is insufficient, and besides studying he needs to work long days at a drinks company to make ends meet. “Living in a foreign land, especially in Italy, requires strength and steadfastness,” he says.

Tackling these issues would benefit not only researchers and students in need of help, but also Italian science. “Host institutions gain insight and understanding of other societies and share a culture of welcome and openness to newcomers. They have a vision of diversity and academic freedom as drivers of excellence in research,” says O’Gorman.


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