It takes confidence for an 18 year old to resist his parents’ requests for him to stay at home and work the fields on the family farm. But that’s what Hashem Al-Ghaili did. He forged a new path and went abroad to get a degree instead.
That journey began a career that has made him a science communicator who has now gotten a stunning one billion views on his Facebook page.
“Every child in Yemen is born to be a farmer,” says Al-Gaili, “so it was hard to convince my father that my ambition was in science.” The family homestead, made up of terraced fields perched on steep hillsides, is about a six-hour trip north of the capital, Sana’a.
He went to Sana’a in secret to fill out the paperwork to apply for a scholarship from the Ministry of Education.
When he thinks about his first trip to Sana’a, he says: “If I’d told my father about it he wouldn’t have approved, so I just went.”
The endeavor proved worth the risk.
The government agreed to pay for his bachelor’s degree, which he earned at the University of Peshawar in Pakistan, studying biotechnology—a move his parents didn’t fully support.
After graduating, he returned to Yemen where he briefly worked in the government’s quality control organization, testing products in a lab.
A few months later he moved again. This time, he went to study for a master’s degree at Jacobs University in Germany after he won a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service, or DAAD.
Eventually his parents realized that he wouldn’t be a farmer. “It’s really hard in Yemeni culture to go against your father,” says a friend and fellow Jacobs student, Khaled Abdallah. “But his dad came around. Hashem’s brother is now also doing an undergraduate degree, which is proof they’ve seen success in Hashem.”
Al-Ghaili’s parents now encourage his aspirations. He hopes his story may encourage other young Arabs struggling to balance what their families want them to do with their own goals.
“In Yemen and the Middle East, if parents want you to go to university, they usually want you to do engineering or get a medical degree,” says Al-Gaili, “but if you have potential in another field, just go for it. Be bold, take the risk and don’t look back.”
Al-Gaili’s confidence is a quality that has helped him shine as a science communicator.
After graduating from Jacobs University, at age 25, he became the vice president of content for the Arabic version of Futurism, a publication that covers scientific and technological innovation.
He also curates his own Facebook page, which posts in English. It has more than 2.8 million followers and is still growing. The page seeks to explain science to lay readers and get them interested and talking about it. His audience is more international than the similar Arabic language Facebook page, Syrian Researchers, though Al-Gaili has a considerable Arab following.
“Mostly they’re from the United States, but I have a lot of followers from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Iraq too,” he says.
Al-Gaili creates and posts infographics, videos and other content on subjects ranging from infection-fighting bandages to psychology. “On a bad day the page gets 10,000 likes,” says Al-Gaili, “But on a good day it’s more like 100,000.”
Roland Benz, a professor of biotechnology at Jacobs University, was Al-Gaili’s supervisor. He says it was clear from the start working with Al-Gaili that he was a skilled communicator. “He’s able to summarize and present complex data in an excellent manner,” says Benz. “When we discuss science it’s on an equal footing. It doesn’t feel like a student and teacher talking.”
When Al-Ghaili graduated from his master’s program, Benz wanted to keep him in the lab. But Al-Ghaili isn’t one to follow the wishes of other people.
“He had to choose between doing the science and describing it,” says Benz, “and he’s doing really well at it.”
Benz says he is proud of what Al-Ghaili is achieving as a science communicator. “It’s an important job. The public needs to understand science, and people like him are helping them,” explains Benz. “To do this, you need to be confident in what you’re saying. He is definitely that.”
That’s not to say everyone is a fan of Al-Ghaili’s Facebook page—he’s spending more and more of his time deleting Internet trolls. “I’ve started to moderate comments that are terrible and disrespectful,” he says, “I will just keep banning people and it takes a lot of time, but it’s worth it in the end.”
Al-Ghaili wants his page to be a force for good. One of the reasons he started posting about science and technology is that he only ever saw bad news from the region in his feed. “There is so much negativity,” he says, “so I thought it might be a good idea for people to log in and see something positive at least once a day.”