The series has been developed as a contribution to the Science in Exile initiative, and will feature members of the project’s steering committee as well as other scholars involved in the initiative. The aim is to give a platform to displaced scientists to share their first-hand experiences, and to raise awareness of the issues faced by refugee, at-risk and displaced scholars.
You can hear the series first by following ISC Presents on your podcast platform of choice, or by visiting ISC Presents.
In the first episode of the series, we hear from Feras Kharrat, a PhD Scholar in Molecular Biomedicine, originally from Syria and now based in Trieste, Italy. Feras shares his story of leaving Syria to continue his studies abroad, and gives an insight into the challenges of conducting scientific research during periods of unrest.
Feras: To that version of Feras in Syria, I want to say you are a really great person, a really brave heart, you know? A very brave heart, to live there and stay there in the war, all the years of the war. It wasn’t easy to take all of these risks.
Husam: I’m Husam Ibrahim, your host for today, and this is the science in exile podcast. In this series, we get an insight into the lives of scientists in exile, and discuss how the past, present and future of science can be preserved across borders. The podcast is a part of an ongoing refugee and displaced scientists project run by the World Academy of Sciences, the International Science Council and the InterAcademy Partnership.
On today’s episode, we have Feras Kharrat, a Syrian PhD scholar in molecular biomedicine, at the University of Trieste, in Italy. Feras moved from Syria to Italy with his wife and child in 2017, to escape war and continue his research. He completed his bachelor’s and master’s degree in Aleppo University in Syria. During this period, his country was struck by war.
Feras: It started in 2012, the middle of 2012. By the end of 2012, the city was a completely horrible city. It was really difficult and risky to stay there. The war took the country to a dark way, a very dark way, rapidly. Yeah, we went through this war. It didn’t take a lot of time to realize that we were going to be in a very dark way. I don’t want to go through the details, but the war affected everybody, every home. If you are not talking about somebody who was killed, or somebody who was kidnapped, for sure all the family are suffering from the poverty, from difficulties in providing the essential materials to stay alive. You know? It’s really difficult to describe, especially after 2013, 15th of 2013, when the problem of Aleppo University happened. You know the bomb of Aleppo University. The university means the future, university students mean future. You know what? When you lose the future, you lose a lot. And we lost a lot. As Syrians, we lost a lot.
Husam: Could you tell us a little bit more about how Aleppo University was before the bombings happened in 2013?
Feras: So, before the war, we had a very good system, talking about the university and the research in Aleppo. There was a lot of funding for the research in that period, especially if we are talking about 2008, 2009, 2010. In that period, for example, if you are a PhD student, you could be funded starting from 16 to 32 or $35,000, to fund your research. But one of our supervisors, he performed his PhD in the Damascus University and the Damascus University provided him funds of $60,000 for his research. So, very good educational system. And the instruments that I was working with in our laboratory in Aleppo University, in the biotechnology centre in Aleppo University, I’m working now here with some instruments in Trieste university, they are at the same level and some instruments in a level they were better before the war. Everything was new, very good. I mean, especially my department, a lot of research centres in Syria were supporting these departments from Damascus, from Aleppo. We have the International Center for Agriculture in Dry Areas. This research centre is an outstanding research centre in Aleppo. You can say it’s comparable, but they were doing research just in the agricultural area, with the facilities that I saw here in the ICGB in Europe and I was lucky to have some training in that centre before the war.
Husam: So, what was Aleppo university like after the war started?
Feras: Starting from 2012, the funds started to be decreased, decreased, decreased. Now I think we’re talking about a few dollars, 60 or $70. I don’t know, $100. Something came from 1000s to hundreds. Now it’s really tough. Even now it depends on the research centre, some research centres in Syria are better than others, especially in Damascus. Damascus is the capital and they were not highly affected like Aleppo. When I was in Aleppo we were depending on other solutions because there was no electricity. I remember for months continuously the normal electricity didn’t come to the city. So, we were using other solutions to provide electricity but it’s not continuous and this affected us a lot, especially people who are performing research like long experiments, like my case. I was performing, some days, DNA extractions and agarose gel and then at the end I need to see VCR. And whatever the experiment, 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. Most of the airports in Syria are shut, and sometimes you order the material from Lebanon to come to Syria and it’s not easy to work in this way. 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. It’s completely impossible. You know, on the 13th of March 2011, some Australian universities came to Syria and they were providing scholarships for… They provided already scholarships for some Syrian students, and this was before the war, 13th of March. So, we had even very good collaborations with other universities, you know, with the rest of the world. Now, it’s completely lost unfortunately.
Husam: So, when did you decide that you wanted to leave Syria and continue being a scientist outside and what was that process like?
Feras: I took this decision in 2015. When I was almost in the last stage of my Master I decided to perform the PhD degree out of Syria. You know, starting from that point, but I will talk about my experience. Most of the scholarships in that time and also the type, the posts that were open out in Europe or in US or out of Syria in general. You know at the end they will ask you for example whenever you want to come out to another university they will ask where is your IELTS certificate, where is your TOEFL certificate and we don’t have these centres in Syria. The TOEFL centre in Syria was for the paper-based TOEFL test and in many universities it wasn’t recognized. Unfortunately, they were not taking into consideration that you were in Syria and you cannot do this test – for people who are living in Syria it was kind of impossible. Talking about the cost: $200. $200 in that time meant my salary for three months. So, it was always a problem for most Syrians, until I got a chance thanks to one of the organizations, they supported me, CARA – Council for At Risk Academics – I want to give them my thanks. To travel, to do these certificates, you will have a lot of risks, because on the road there are many checkpoints and there was some risks to be kidnapped. That was unfortunately happening in Syria and I wasn’t able to travel until there was a completely safe road to travel. And I did the IELTS in Lebanon, it took me 17 hours to arrive to Beirut and also 17 hours to come back and before we arrived in Aleppo the road was cut. We didn’t know what to do, there was a sniper attacking the road, and we found ourselves not able to complete the way. It’s terrible, terrible memories. You know?
Husam: So, what made you decide to be a scientist? Was it something that you wanted to do or was it something that your family wanted you to do?
Feras: No, it was something that I wanted to do from the beginning, from the zero point. When I was in high school, my marks, my grades, were very high, I was able to study whatever I wanted in Syria. But I decided to go through this field, because I like genetics, molecular medicine. It’s something new, you know? I thought this in that period, when I was 18. Now, I’m 32. So, I’m talking about something 14 years ago. I thought this science is going to be the language of the future, taking into consideration in my mind that I want to complete it till the end, I mean till attaining the PhD degree, taking the whole way from the beginning till the end. I was among the first top students also in the secondary school, on the level of the whole country. I had the chance to study whatever I wanted, but I decided to go through this area, and this field was also new in Syria, and was well established somehow. There were many collaborations with universities in Germany, universities in France, in the UK, with the University of Aleppo to support these departments, the new department.
Husam: Now that you live and work in Italy, what status do you define yourself with, if any at all? Would that be a refugee scientist, display scientist, or scientist in exile?
Feras: To answer this question, let me first describe what we are facing now, as Syrians I mean. Ninety percent unfortunately, 90% of Syrians now in Syria are under the global poverty line. Syria is the worst disaster in the current modern era, you know? Unfortunately, this is the truth. So, all of us, all of Syrians, Syrian scientists, and also Syrians, they are all exiled, but it’s not something that we selected. It’s not something that we wanted to do. It’s not something voluntary. You can describe my situation under this point.
So, everybody in Syria was affected by the war. Whoever got the chance to leave the war took it, honestly. When I came here, I got a scholarship from the ICGB. I took it, but now with the current status, I cannot go back. I came here normally, with a normal visa, general call I mean, off of this scholarship, and it wasn’t a special call for people in Syria. No, it was completely general competitive scholarship and I won this scholarship because I wrote a good project, I did the IELTS, I did the TOEFL before. So, I had the, you can say, the requirements of getting the scholarship, but currently I cannot go back. And this is the current point.
Since I cannot go back, you can consider I’m out of Syria continuously for more than 4 years without any visit. That’s something not voluntary. This was not something that I wanted, to come here and stay here and not coming back. No, because I cannot go back. This is a very important point. You know, when I graduated among the first top students, I was supposed to be devoted by the government to have my own position. For sure, if there was no war in Syria, I would come back and take the benefits of this position and have my own research group, my own laboratory, my own connections, and also good relationships with the university that I was supposed to be devoted to. I want to come back one day, but you know, I cannot come back. The war is still there and you know how it’s impossible to go back, especially with a family, with my family. I have now two kids, you know, it’s not easy to be in Aleppo.
Husam: What thoughts and memories do you remember from when you left Syria four years ago?
Feras: I feel that I did a lot. Really, I did a lot. I did a lot for my family and for my future. I remember the face of my father, and my brother, when they told me go and seek your future. You have the qualifications, and you have the motivation to become a scientist. So, go and seek your future. In the airplane, I felt that… I don’t know how to say it, but I made a prayer to come back one day to Syria. I was praying for the war to stop and not to die out of Syria, honestly. I wanted to die in my country. You know, that was my prayer.
It’s difficult, you know, 4 years continuously, without hope to come back – the situation in Syria is getting worse day by day. It’s not getting well, it’s difficult.
Fortunately, now there is the internet. And I can some days – it’s cut off sometimes, it’s okay – talk to my father at least one time every one week or two weeks. Yeah, it’s good. But you know, when you are there, it’s much better.
Talking about my daughters, they don’t know what Syria is. She doesn’t know what is the meaning of Syria. She knows Italy and that’s it. She came here, she was eight months, and she speaks Italian better than she speaks Arabic.
But for you, as a father, it’s nice to make your kids know what is the meaning of Syria. It’s something to be proud of, because at the end they are Syrians. I mean, they’re young kids, they are growing without any relation to their home country, to their native roots. This is a problem of Syrians in all of Europe. So, this is another thing as a father I consider.
Husam: How has your experience been like, working in Italy? Have you faced any sort of discrimination in the workplace for being Syrian or being from the Middle East?
Feras: Well, I came to the ICGB, and the ICGB environment is an international environment, you know? It was okay for me to be in an international environment coming from the Middle East. But, you know, sometimes you might face some people. They are underestimating your skills, as I told you, you have to just work hard and show them – no, I’m better than what you were thinking about me. And, you know, in the research, not just to work and show your work that you are doing well, this is the key. And you cannot say it was like a general rule, that all the people are underestimating you. No, the general rule is that people are welcoming, international environment and I was happy to be there.
Husam: So Feras, you’ve actively supported Science International’s Science in Exile initiative. You’ve attended their workshop and presented the problems that Syrian scientists face in their country and you started a dialogue about how organizations can preserve science in Syria. How important would you say is it for international organizations to actually work with Syrians in order to help them rebuild their country?
Feras: Now, 90% of Syrians are under the poverty line and we need to focus on something that unifies us. We need to rebuild Syria again. Science is one of the ways to reach these goals. You know, we have a lot of motivation for the science. I mean, talking about myself and other Syrian scientists, now we have more responsibility toward our country, you know, when we need to be very well qualified to rebuild the country. For this, we need the support of the organizations, not for us to live here, to stay here and live – no – to be qualified, qualified enough to enter the reconstruction. I hope one day I will come back to my country to share the benefits, to share the knowledge that I got here, the experience that I got here, to my students, my friends, everybody!
Husam: Thank you, Feras, for being on this episode and sharing your story with Science International.
This podcast is part of an ongoing refugee and displaced scientists project called science in exile. It’s run by science international, an initiative in which three global science organizations collaborate at the forefront of science policy. These are the International Science Council, the World Academy of Sciences and the InterAcademy partnership (IAP)
For more information on the science in exile project please head over to: council.science/scienceinexile.
The information, opinions and recommendations presented by our guests do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of Science International.
Ferras Kharrat is a PhD Scholar in Molecular Biomedicine, in the Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism group, Trieste University, Italy, and Former Research Fellow, Molecular Cardiology Group, International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), Trieste, and Member of Academic and Teaching Staff, Department of Biotechnology, Aleppo University. Feras Kharrat gained a Bachelor degree in Biotechnology Engineering in 2012, and was awarded in November 2013 an academic position in his home university. He gained a Masters in Biotechnology Engineering in 2016, and came to Italy in February 2017 upon winning the scholarship of ICGEB to begin PhD studies in Molecular Biomedicine between the ICGEB and Trieste University, Italy. His research is focused on aging-associated diseases and unravelling the role of different compounds in ameliorating the symptoms of aging-related diseases, with a particular interest in Ghrelin axis, in addition to identifying new biomarkers for metabolic-related complications such as Metabolic Syndrome, which in some conditions may be a major risk factor for morbidity and mortality.
The information, opinions and recommendations presented by our guests are those of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of Science International, an initiative bringing together top-level representatives of three international science organizations: the International Science Council (ISC,) the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), and The World Academy of Sciences (UNESCO-TWAS).