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Amplifying the voices of at-risk, displaced and refugee scientists

The ISC Presents: Science in Exile podcast series aimed to pass the microphone to displaced and refugee scientists themselves, to tell their stories about how displacement affects research careers.

The statistics are well rehearsed: there were 82.4 million forcibly displaced people in the world in 2020, the highest number ever recorded. Among them are countless scientists, doctors, engineers and graduate students who’ve been forced to interrupt their research and put their careers on hold.

But what about the people behind those statistics? What do we know of the individuals affected by displacement and the multiple impacts on their lives? What happens to the research being done by scientists who are forced to move? And how does this kind of disruption affect the production of science and technology on which we all depend?

For the ISC Presents: Science in Exile podcast series, we wanted to give a platform to the scholars affected by displacement themselves: to create space for them to share their stories and the realities of displacement in their own words.

“I think I can speak for many people when I say that we’ve consumed a lot of news and imagery related to refugees and displaced people, many times connected to political agendas that focus on non-representative samples of crimes, dehumanising refugees and displaced people,” said podcast host Husam Ibrahim. “Being able to talk to this talented group of scientists made me realize how important representation in the refugee and displaced community is, which I hope helps redefine the stigmatized word: refugee.”

Importantly, we wanted to invite displaced scientists to give listeners an insight into their scientific work. It’s estimated that the number of displaced researchers has increased sharply in recent years, due in part to the ongoing conflict in Syria, which has seen its once well-established science infrastructure largely dismantled by more than a decade of civil war.

In the first episode of the series, molecular biomedicine scholar Feras Kharrat told listeners how life in Syria changed after 2012, and how – against the backdrop of increasing conflict and violence – the day-to-day reality of carrying out scientific research at the University of Aleppo became more and more challenging.

“Sometimes electricity cut off and I lost the experiment, I lost the money of the experiment, the result of the experiment and I need to begin it again […] Especially talking about my field, we use valuable materials and expensive materials, materials with high sensitivity to different conditions, to the temperature […] You know it’s not easy to perform – how to say – to sustain the same level of the research.”

Feras Kharrat

As an early-career researcher, Feras took the difficult decision to leave Syria and seek his future abroad, moving to Italy after gaining a competitive scholarship. Displacement can be particularly challenging for early-career researchers, who are just getting started on their scientific careers and may not have established networks that can help them identify opportunities to continue their research and studies elsewhere.

In episode four, Eqbal Douqan shared her joy at starting a scientific career in her home country, Yemen.

“I returned to Yemen carrying many goals, or dreams, with me, and I hoped to achieve them in my country […] I decided to just achieve my goals and dreams in Yemen because really I want to do something for Yemen. When I started to, you know, achieve my goals in my city, I was so happy. When I started working in a university in city of Taizz, and this is my city, I began to achieve the first goal of – or I can say dream – of opening therapeutical and nutrition programme.”  

Eqbal Douqan

Sadly, when war broke out, the university was closed, and Eqbal was unable to continue her research. As the conflict persisted, Eqbal sought opportunities overseas, first in Malaysia and later in Norway.

Throughout the interviews, scientists shared how the uncertainty and economic insecurity created by ongoing conflict and displacement had interrupted their research careers for protracted periods, and how that had affected not only their ongoing work, but also their mental wellbeing.

One of the most striking themes running through all the interviews is the fulfilment that interviewees expressed in their roles as scientists and as educators, with research and teaching being much more than just a job:

“…to start living again through my profession, at least being before students, having the conversations with students, having conversations with some of my colleagues would be something that would really help me,” said Alfred Babo, reflecting on his first months of displacement.

“The exchange [of] ideas between me and the scholars in the field, between the academic community, not only kept me alive, but also provided me with new ideas, new lenses to be able to see the Syrian conflict. And I learned a lot.”

Radwan Ziadeh

This kind of knowledge sharing and exchange with colleagues is something that’s dear to all scholars, and it’s part of the DNA of international scientific organizations such as the ISC, The World Academy of Sciences and the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), which launched the podcast series as part of their joint Science in Exile initiative. The project aims to draw on the strengths of those organizations’ members and network of like-minded organizations in order to develop and implement a coordinated advocacy campaign to support and integrate refugee, displaced and at-risk scientists.

Since the Science in Exile initiative was first launched, the ISC team and coordinating partners have often been asked why scientists who have been displaced need extra support. We hope that this podcast series will help to explain more about why scholars can find themselves particularly at risk in times of conflict.

“Those who are leading, enlightening societies, are coming from universities […] these are the elites, these are the scholars who are leading many social movements, like unions, any kind of intellectual movement to push for freedom, to push for democracy”.

Alfred Babo

As the discussions showed, social scientists researching – and sharing knowledge on – the social or political context in their country might be targeted in any crackdown on freedom of expression, and or medical doctor might become a target of suspicion because of their trusted position in a community.

What’s more, in line with the understanding of science as a global public good that informs the ISC’s mission and activities, in so far as the knowledge generated by scientific research benefits societies and individuals, the production of that knowledge and its sharing with wider audiences needs to be protected.

Many of the podcast interviewees spoke of their fears for future students and the future of scientific education in countries affected by conflict and displacement.

“As many as 13,000 academics and staff at various universities in Myanmar are now suspended…removed […] almost all students are starting to miss out crucial years of education. As you know, science and higher education is vital to a country’s efforts to increase social capital and to promote social cohesion. The consequences are enormous.”

Phyu Phyu Thin Zaw

Supporting displaced, at-risk and refugee scholars is also about safeguarding the future of scientific education and strengthening science and the benefits it promotes across the world. Several interviewees shared their hopes that the experience they’ve gained overseas as displaced scientists will one day mean they can contribute to rebuilding their home countries, when it is safe for them to return.

Of course, a brief podcast can never tell the full story of displacement, or explore the complex challenges facing at-risk, refugee and displaced scientists, but we hope that these podcasts will give everyone an insight into the lived realities and research of some of just some of the people affected by forced displacement, and why a strong response is required to promote the protection of scientists.

Listen to all the podcasts here:

Latest on ISC Presents: Science In Exile

On 30 September, the International Science Council launched a series of six podcasts on the theme ‘Science in Exile’. The podcasts feature interviews with refugee and displaced scientists who share their science, their stories of displacement, and their hopes for the future.

Learn more

Photo by Michal Czyz on Unsplash.

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