The Libyan academic Jehan Alswaihli has confronted emigration, cancer, and irregular scholarship payments since moving to Britain in 2013 to study for a doctorate in mathematics at the University of Reading.
Alswaihli discussed her experiences as an academic in exile in a recent interview with Al-Fanar Media. In commemoration of World Refugee Day, observed on June 20, we present her story as part of a series of articles on female academics who rebuilt their lives after fleeing from conflict zones.
Alswaihli, who was born in Misurata, Libya, in 1971, taught at the Faculty of Education at Misurata University for five years before moving to Britain with a Libyan government scholarship. But her scholarship payments failed because of the civil war and power struggle in Libya since 2011.
Alswaihli obtained her Ph.D. in two years ago but rules out returning home now because of the instability in Libya, the fact that her children are in British schools, and her continuing treatment for breast cancer, which was diagnosed during her doctoral study.
At present she works part-time at a Kaplan International institute in London teaching mathematics and statistics to international students to prepare them to join British universities.
She hopes to land a permanent, academic job in a European university, but the search is “very difficult,” she said, because of the high number of master’s and doctoral degree holders within and outside Europe and the intense competition.
Life Challenges and Disease
“I call on international institutions and organisations to provide more support to researchers from conflict countries so they can resume their research, and to provide grants and initiatives so they can continue despite the difficulties of life in diaspora.”Jihan Alswaihli
During her doctoral study, Alswaihli had problems living on the irregular payments she received from her Libyan government scholarship. She said she was forced to take cheaper accommodation 40 miles from Reading University. She also had to work to cover her living expenses.
In Swindon, where she was living, Alswaihli found few people who could speak Arabic and she could not go to university headquarters often. These circumstances hindered her ability to integrate and left her feeling isolated in her new society, she said.
She also experienced delays in obtaining a certificate to teach mathematics in Britain because of the “exorbitant financial cost.”
Despite these challenges, Alswaihli’s progress toward a Ph.D. was not affected much until she discovered she had breast cancer in 2015. She was then forced to stop studying for a whole year while she underwent two operations, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. She is currently receiving free hormonal therapy from the British national health system.
Alswaihli told Al-Fanar Media the many difficulties she had faced in Libya and as an emigrant helped her endure cancer and reinforced her determination to obtain her Ph.D.
A Resilient Personality
A friend and former colleague of hers in Libya, Sakina Al Najjar, believes Alswaihli’s personality has played a major role in overcoming her difficulties.
Al Najjar, who is a professor of mathematics in the Faculty of Education at Misurata University, said Alswaihli was well-mannered and calm with poise, self-confidence and a strong character.
Al Najjar and Alswaihli joined a postgraduate programme at the University of Misurata, and then taught together in the Faculty of Education.
“She succeeded in changing the stereotyped image of the Libyan researcher abroad and shed light, through her experience, on the difficulties faced by researchers in conflict countries, whether in their countries or after moving abroad.Sakina Al Najjar A professor of mathematics at Misurata University and a former colleague of Alswaihli’s
She said Alswaihli had “succeeded in changing the stereotyped image of the Libyan researcher abroad and shed light, through her experience, on the difficulties faced by researchers in conflict countries, whether in their countries or after moving abroad.”
Understanding these scholars’ experiences, Al Najjar said, was “important for their necessary role in rebuilding educational institutions in their countries of origin, in the later phase of reconstruction.”
Scholars Need More Support
Alswaihli wants international institutions and organisations to provide more support to researchers who have fled conflict and violence so they can resume their research.
Displaced scholars need grants and initiatives that help them continue despite the difficulties of the new life in diaspora, she said.
She added: “I am haunted by obsessions about the renewal of residency and the months of waiting for a decision, especially while trying to get used to life in Britain and no longer being able to understand the requirements for living in Libya.”
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Despite the difficulties, Alswaihli wants to stay in Britain rather than return to Libya because of the turbulent situation and the continuation of her cancer treatment.
“Life in Libya would much easier than life in Britain, because many people around me would be supportive,” she said. “But the thought of another outbreak of war scares me, as well as the lack of treatment and good education.”
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