From scientist to refugee to scientist

NWO is providing €750,000 to support research conducted by refugee-scientists such as Fares al Hasan from Syria. At TU Delft he will examine the drought in Europe in 2018.

Fares al Hasan is back at work at the TU Delft. (Photo: Inge van Mill)

Lees het originele stuk in het Nederlands

For the Syrian engineer Fares al Hasan, MSc, the door to science seemed closed forever when the civil war started in his homeland in March 2011. In October of that year, when the messages about the atrocities committed by Bashar al-Assad became more widely known and militias loyal to Assad started arresting suspected opponents in Aleppo as well, the opposition grew in strength rapidly. The heaviest fighting in the province of Aleppo, on the border with Turkey, began in July 2012.

At that time, Al Hasan had a promising career as agronomy engineer at the faculty of Soil Science and Reclamation of the University of Aleppo. He worked on analysing soil and water samples with  atomic absorption spectrophotometry, an analysis technique based on the selective absorption of electromagnetic radiation by atoms. For his research he used satellite images, soil mapping and geographic information systems.

He enjoyed his work immensely. But the daily commute by motorbike from East to West Aleppo slowly became a hell. There was frequent fighting in the old city centre. Sharpshooters on both sides made it life-threatening to commute.

What do you do if you have a dream job but risk your life every day just getting to it? Al Hasan decided not to risk it any longer and lost his job as a result. He moved with his wife and children to his parents’ house in the village of Sukaria, just outside Aleppo, and started making new plans. “The first thing I did was to buy a satellite dish to establish a connection to the internet. I started looking for scientific scholarships in West European cities. I found two: Wageningen and Montpellier. Together with my wife, I decided to travel to the Netherlands on my own. A year later she would join me with our two daughters.”

Difficult period

On 8 August 2014, Al Hasan arrived very early in the morning at the place on the border crossing he had chosen. But it was crawling with Turkish soldiers, which was bad news. “If they get hold of you, they will send you back … if you’re lucky. Some people have been shot.” About two hours later, the coast was clear: no soldier in sight. Al Hasan ran madly across the dry no-man’s land towards a waiting taxi on Turkish territory. Then he took a bus to Ankara, where he obtained a visa for the Netherlands a few days later. Another week and he landed at Schiphol.

Al Hasan remembers every detail of his arrival in the Netherlands. “It was 15 August 2014; a Friday. During the trip, I had lost my jacket. I was cold and hungry. But I couldn’t believe my eyes. Dutch people on bicycles, that was so amazing. In Syria, no one bicycles. I took the train to Ede and switched to a bus to my contact person in Wageningen. I was given a hot meal and shown to my room. I closed the door behind me and was overwhelmed with a deep loneliness.”

In his first year in the Netherlands, Al Hasan didn’t accomplish much. He loves football and travelling, but he couldn’t focus on that because of his concerns about his family’s safety. After about a year Al Hasan’s family was finally reunited. That was the end of the most difficult period of his life, and he could concentrate on his work again. He obtained a master’s degree in international land and water management from Wageningen University & Research and found a job as a remote-sensing specialist at an internationally operating non-profit organisation focussing on climate change, deforestation and unsustainable agriculture. For this organisation he processed and analysed spatial data and satellite images for agrarian purposes.

Modern techniques

And then he was awarded €54,000 from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), which has made a total of €750,000 available. With the pilot programme Vluchtelingen in de Wetenschap [Refugees in science], the NWO together with De Jonge Akademie, KNAW and Foundation for Refugee Students UAF enables financing of one-year positions for academics with a refugee status who have obtained a master or a doctorate and wish to continue building their career in the Netherlands.

At TU Delft, Al Hasan is researching drought. “The development of drought is not well understood in general. How drought intensifies and spreads, and how is it related to precipitation and evaporation: we know little about these aspects. With my supervisors I am analysing satellite data for the effect that the drought in the summer of 2018 here had on soil moisture, vegetation and evaporation. Then we are going to examine the extent to which the reduced evaporation led to reduced transport of moisture in the air. Our hypothesis is that less precipitation had consequences in other regions. This may allow drought to get worse and spread. We conduct the analysis by comparing the outcomes to an average year.”

Al Hasan is now putting everything to the test. He hopes to do a doctorate on his project and has resigned his job in anticipation. At TU Delft he is being given the room to experiment with the most modern techniques, like radar, cloud computing and machine learning. He is also learning new soft skills, like writing and presentation skills. In addition, he is creating a network which will make it easier for him to connect with ongoing Dutch research projects in the near future. In brief: an ideal opportunity to make a name for himself in the Netherlands. “My ambition was once to be a professor at the University of Aleppo. I lost my job because of war. This project gives me new hope that I can still realise my dream of becoming a scientist and finding a job at a renowned university.”

Great springboard

Scientists arriving in our country as refugees often find it difficult to continue on their career path. A pilot from NWO aims to support them in this.

How many refugee-scientists there are in the Netherlands and what their educational level is are unknown factors according to Dr. Behnam Taebi of De Jonge Akademie. “We were also looking for figures. We didn’t find any, but there were signs of sufficient interest to launch this pilot. And that seems to be true. We received over one hundred applications.”

For the refugee-scientists the pilot that the NWO announced last year is a great chance to revive their career. Some have not been able to conduct science for years. They encounter obstacles, like the unknown language and culture. It’s such a shame in the opinion of the Dutch government. “It is great that we can take advantage of this source of talent,” said Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science at an information afternoon about the NOW pilot held on 2 June 2018. “Our own scientists can profit from their fresh perspective from another research culture.”

Science is eminently suitable to bring together cultures and insights, claims Prof. Niek Lopez Cardozo from NWO. “Whatever cultural origin they have, scientists will always find people who speak their language, share their passion, understand their drive.” According to Taebi, the NOW pilot is exploring ‘an enormous potential’. “Hopefully, this programme will be a great springboard to more and permanent positions for refugee-scientists in our higher education.”

Dr. Ruud van der Ent, who is supervising the Syrian refugee-scientist Fares al Hasan together with Prof. Susan Steele-Dunne, stressed the importance of the pilot. “The competition in the Dutch academic world is massive. With a career break and little experience of the western academic world, it is difficult to find a place. This pilot offers refugees the opportunity to prove themselves. Unfortunately, the pilot lasts just one year. I am secretly hoping that we can extend the project or make it longer in some other way.”

  • This article was originally published by the magazine De Ingenieur


Ton Verheijen / Freelancer De Ingenieur

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