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A New Film Focuses on 4 Arab Researchers’ Lives in Exile

ASSIUT, Egypt—Television broadcasts and newspapers frequently carry the stories of refugees’ suffering around the world. But a new documentary, Science in Exile, has an unusual focus:  It zeroes in on the situation of four Arab refugees who are researchers.

The 37-minute film, which took seven months to produce, documents the stories of researchers from Syria, Yemen and Iraq who left their homelands to escape war and seek safety, as well as the opportunity to resume their research. The four researchers tell about their former academic lives and the difficulties they now face. The documentary also shows the opportunities they have received and how they have tried to resume their old roles.

Among other goals, the film “tries to change the stereotype of refugees,” said Nicole Leghissa, its director. “Few people in Europe believe that refugees can be scientists.”

It wasn’t easy, however, to reach the researchers and convince them to participate. “Finding the researchers was the most difficult task, especially because many of them were afraid to talk in front of the camera to protect their families back in their countries,” said Leghissa.

“Finally, I managed to convince four of them to take part. They agreed after they trusted me and in the belief that their participation would be useful to support researchers and other scientists who are suffering just like them.”

One of the participants in the film, Ghanya al-Naqeb, an assistant professor of nutrition at Sana’a University in Yemen, said that the film is an opportunity to introduce the problems of researchers in conflict countries and the difficulties they face in countries of asylum. “After two years of suffering, I have been able to resume my academic life,” she said, “However, many of my colleagues are still suffering. The film might give them a chance to get similar support.”

In the film, al-Naqeb tells her story of leaving Yemen for Sudan, where she spent two years without work living under difficult conditions before receiving a two-year fellowship at the University of Würzburg, in Germany.

The film also depicts the situation of Saja Al-Zoubi, a sociologist who was forced to leave Syria and go to Lebanon after the deterioration of security in Damascus. In Lebanon, Al-Zoubi worked to complete her research on the economics of refugee families, especially those in households headed by females. At the same time, she lived with serious concerns about not getting her residence permit renewed amid Lebanon’s increasing restrictions on Syrians. (See a related article, “For Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, Precarious Lives“).

“Fears were chasing me,” she said. “I was afraid  that the day would come when I would have to stop working in Lebanon, and that then I would lose everything.”

Al-Zoubi eventually got a research fellowship in the United Kingdom to continue her work at the University of Oxford.

Although the four researchers in the film have had opportunities to resume their research, the film documents that the process has not been easy for them. The challenges faced by researchers after getting asylum include those faced by other refugees when seeking employment, such as obtaining a residence permit, getting their academic degrees recognized, and finding institutions that would give them grants and help them continue their scientific careers.

“The documentary sheds a beautiful light on the insistence of scientists to stay and persevere and to strive to rebuild their academic lives safely,” said Allan E. Goodman, president and chief executive of the Institute of International Education, which offers  grants to researchers through the Scholar Rescue Fund. “The story of every scholar forces us to think beyond the numbers and reminds us that raging wars are not only a matter of headlines only, but that tragedies strike the best of humanity.”

The film was produced by the World Academy of Sciences, an organization based in Trieste, Italy, with the support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. It was shown in mid-February in Austin, Texas, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. However, it is not yet available to the public.

Edward Lempinen, the public information officer at the World Academy of Sciences, hopes the film will highlight the importance of supporting researchers from countries experiencing armed conflict. They will have a vital role in the reconstruction and rebuilding of scientific research in their countries of origin, he said. “They need the opportunity to continue their work or learning in new countries so that they can return home.”

For her part, the film’s director is optimistic. “I hope this film will have an impact on the policy of European scientific institutions to create more opportunities for the temporary integration of these scientists,” Leghissa said, “to avoid the risk of losing their wonderful minds and value in the scientific community for us and their countries.”


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