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A Lebanese Scholar Wants to Improve Refugees’ Lives

BEIRUT—Lamis Jomaa, a young Lebanese scholar and professor at the American University of Beirut, hopes her work in assessing the food security of refugees and other vulnerable communities will contribute to solutions that improve lives.

“Research is a way to change the status quo by developing new and innovative ideas and solutions,” she said.

Jomaa’s current research focuses on nutrition among Syrian refugee women and children in Lebanon and their host communities. Syrian refugees in Lebanon are now more vulnerable than ever, the United Nations reported earlier this year. More than half of refugee households are living in extreme poverty and more than 90 percent of them are experiencing some degree of food insecurity.

Collecting data from refugees themselves through interviews, Jomaa learns about the foods and beverages they consume and the choices they make, sometimes of necessity.

“I noticed, for example, that mothers are mostly skipping meals so their children can have more food,” she said.

Jomaa holds a Ph.D. in nutritional science from Pennsylvania State University, where she specialized in community nutrition. She chose that subfield because of its links with many disciplines, including medical, social and behavioral sciences, and because it is “a key part of providing wellness and health for individuals and communities,” she said in an interview conducted by email.

In addition to her work as an assistant professor at the American University of Beirut, Jomaa is the assistant director of the refugee health program of the university’s Global Health Initiatives and is a member of the Faculty of Agriculture’s food security program.

Her interest in the food security of vulnerable communities was a factor in her selection as one of 50 young scientists who will attend an annual summit on innovation, science and technology sponsored by the World Economic Forum.

The meeting, being held later this month in Tianjin, China, will bring together more than 2,000 participants, including corporate executives, government and civil-society leaders, and academics, and Jomaa is looking forward to being part of it.

“The issue of food insecurity, which has become international, can only be addressed through a multi-sectoral vision, concerted effort and open dialogue among scholars to find solutions; something I hope attending the forum will provide me with,” she wrote in an e-mail.

In her field research with Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jomaa has found that many refugees cannot buy enough food to lead a healthy life. Refugee families are eating less nutritious food. Rather than fresh foods, they are buying rice and pasta, food that will fill them for longer—but this means they aren’t getting the level of micronutrients they need.

“Amid the lack of international assistance, jobs and livelihoods, refugees are less likely to have access to basic food, shelter, education, clean water and medical care,” said Jomaa. “This increases tensions between them and host communities.” Providing food support for both parties, she said, is essential to ensure social harmony.

Beyond the health consequences of the deterioration in the quality of their diet, food insecurity  causes other problems for refugee families, Jomaa said. Children are forced to drop out of school and find work to provide money for food.

Jomaa’s passion for research as a way of changing lives for the better drives her to encourage her students to be involved. “Without the development of scientific research, without the creation of facts and data, people and societies cannot progress,” she said. “Thus, I encourage my students to stick to their scientific passion and work hard to accomplish their research projects.”

At the American University of Beirut, Jomaa is well regarded by her peers and a popular teacher among her students, who are almost of her age.

“For me, Jomaa was not just a supervisor. She has advanced communication skills and is always there to answer any questions,” said Nadia Ibrahim, who earned her master’s degree in food security under Jomaa’s supervision. “She has clear organizational, planning and leadership skills. She is a wonderful model for young professors.”

Farah Naja, a professor in the university’s School of Agricultural and Food Sciences, says Jomaa “has succeeded, with limited funding, in promoting a special approach to research on the subject of food security, which is growing in importance from a local to global field.”

Still, Jomaa acknowledges that it’s not always easy to design and carry out the large, interdisciplinary research projects needed to find “innovative solutions to complex and interrelated problems such as food security, obesity, climate change and sustainable development.”

“The lack of cooperation among scholars is one of the main difficulties,” she said.

The solution, she believes, lies in gaining “the involvement of researchers from different scientific backgrounds to develop the effective interventions needed to meet these common challenges.”


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