ISC Presents: Science in Times of Crisis is a 5 part podcast series exploring what living in a world of crisis and geopolitical instability means for science and scientists around the world.
In Episode 4 we were joined by Dr Alaa Hamdon, who provided a personal perspective as a Professor of Remote Sensing and an expert in disaster risk management based at Mosul University, Iraq.
Holly Sommers: We exist at a time in which war, civil strife, disasters and climate change impact almost every corner of the globe and crisis is, in many ways, an inevitability. Paired with this are the sensitive geopolitics that shape the way in which policymakers and governments prepare for and react to those crises.
I’m Holly Sommers and in this 5-part podcast series from the International Science Council we will explore the implications for science and scientists of a world characterized by crises and geopolitical instability.
In this episode, we’ll discuss the impact of crisis, specifically conflict, on an individual scientist, Dr Alaa Hamdon from Mosul, Iraq. Recorded over a series of voice notes during power cuts in Iraq, we spoke to Alaa about his experience before, during and after ISIS’ takeover of Mosul in June 2014. We discuss the impact of the crisis on his personal, academic and professional life, as well as the important rebuilding of what Alaa has labeled ‘the lighthouse of knowledge’, Mosul University’s Library.
Alaa is the director of the Remote Sensing Centre at University of Mosul in Iraq. He is an expert in disaster risk management, seismic activity, remote sensing, Geographic Information Systems (or GIS), earth sciences, urban planning, cultural heritage and tectonics and geomorphology. In 2014, when ISIS took over the city of Mosul, he made the difficult decision to flee his city and country. His journey as a refugee found him in incredibly harsh conditions in Turkey, often sleeping in different places, including open parks, and with little to no money. In 2015 he was granted a fellowship by the University of Aberdeen as a research fellow in earth sciences and remote sensing. In 2016 he left Scotland to Maynooth, Ireland and in the same year Alaa decided to return to his family in Erbil, Iraq, where they had fled to. Amidst the chaos and destruction of the city of Mosul that he returned to in 2017, Alaa set about trying to restore Mosul University Library, setting up the Mosul Book Bridge campaign, a call to action to the international scientific community, requesting assistance for rebuilding and restocking the library.
Holly Sommers: Dr Alaa, what research were you working on before ISIS took over your city of Mosul, and what started your passion in this field?
Alaa Hamdon: I have been working in remote sensing and GIS (Geographic Information System) techniques, and seismic activity analysis and earth science. And because I’m a geologist, and I finished my master’s and my PhD in science and remote sensing and GIS, so I had a big passion toward this field.
Holly Sommers: And prior to the takeover of Mosul by ISIS, what was your experience carrying out research in your home country like? Were there any struggles that you were facing before ISIS seized control?
Alaa Hamdon: My experience or my research was, before ISIS taking over Mosul, it was quite okay but was limited, because we were afraid and terrified. And there were big mysteries about our life.
Holly Sommers: The City of Mosul, which means “the linking point” in Arabic, is home to an enormous amount of cultural diversity. But at the heart of Mosul’s scientific and educational heritage is the Mosul University Library, built in 1967. Could you tell us a bit more about the scientific and cultural importance of this space, and what it means to you personally?
Alaa Hamdon: The library of Mosul University, it is in the heart of Mosul University. I called it a lighthouse, a lighthouse, a lighthouse of knowledge, and learning and information. It means a lot for students, academics, and researchers, for me, as well, because I had a nice memory there. I spent a lot of time inside that library, studying and trying to learn new things, reading different cultures, different books, from Agatha Christie to fictional books, or non fictional books. I had a really nice memory there.
Holly Sommers: Very briefly Alaa, what did the scientific community and the higher education system look like in Mosul before ISIS took the city in 2014?
Alaa Hamdon: The scientific community’s status before 2014, it was quite difficult, rather than now. The scientists, engineers, doctors, they were afraid from not a clear future and a mysterious life. And the situation was really bad here in Mosul, but life was going on as usual.
Holly Sommers: Dr Alaa, when ISIS re-captured the city in June 2014, you must have been left with an impossible decision, to stay or to leave. Could you tell us a bit about the experience for you in the immediate aftermath, and how you made your decision in the end?
Alaa Hamdon: The decision of leaving, when ISIS took over my city, Mosul, people were scared and terrified. Me too. I didn’t know what to do. I just wanted to leave the city as soon as possible. And I did. And it was a hard decision for me. And I left behind me everything, my books, my office, my papers, my articles, my memories, my room. Everything. I feel, in that moment, I will never go back. I wanted to cry at that moment. And I was so sad. With no plan. Where I should go, what I should do. What is my next step? Everything was dark for me. I just wanted to leave to go to Erbil or Turkey, anywhere that feels safe.
Holly Sommers: As a scientist, and a professor, what international help or organizations were available to you as a displaced scientist and professor?
Alaa Hamdon: I received help from SAR, Scholars at Risk and CARA, Council of at Risk Academics. Both of them they accept my application and accept me as a fellow. And they helped me a lot, especially CARA, they found me a placement in Aberdeen University in Scotland, for one year and a half. And that’s helped me a lot as a scientist and academic. Because it improved my career and my experience, and my background, that’s really helped me a lot. I was thinking without this placement, I would end up in some refugee camp and I would be forgotten. And maybe my path, my life path would be changed. Totally. Yeah, so I thank them very much for their help, really. And a lot of friends also helped me with that as well. I really thank them, all of them.
Holly Sommers: So you were able to find the fellowship and a host university. But I imagined that the sudden and drastic change of country during a time of crisis must have been a really challenging time for you. Can you paint a picture of what that was like?
Alaa Hamdon: Moving to Aberdeen University, it was completely like a U-turn for me. Different city, different university, different culture, different country, different scientific system. So I had to adjust myself to that system. I struggled a lot in the beginning to be honest. But later, with help, a lot of friends there, I adjusted myself and found myself working good within the system. Aberdeen University helped me, they gave me this good hosting during the crisis time. They opened the door for me while all the doors were closed.
Holly Sommers: Whilst you were away from Iraq, what was your academic experience like in your new host country? Were you able to continue your previous research?
Alaa Hamdon: I tried to continue my previous research in Aberdeen University, in the geoscience school, and tried to improve my research as well toward a different path. So I tried to match between the archaeology department, geography department and geology. Because in the geoscience school in Aberdeen University, there were three departments: archaeology, and geography and geology. So I tried to get a benefit from these three different departments to find new paths for me.
Holly Sommers: And what was it in the end which drew you back to Mosul, and to leave your new position?
Alaa Hamdon: Oh, the most hard decision in my whole life. It was really difficult for me to make that decision, how I should go back to my family in Erbil, to Iraq, because my family left Mosul and they gone to Erbil, and they need my help. So I was in big confusion, decision, whether I should stay in UK or Ireland or I should go back to my family, to the refugee camp and help them. It was a big difference, like telling someone ‘Oh do you want to stay in a five star hotel or you want to stay in a one star motel’ so I made my decision and I went back to Erbil to help my family because they need me. I couldn’t let them down. I just sacrificed my desire to stay there and live a wonderful life.
Holly Sommers: And Alaa, could you describe to us, if you can, what Mosul looked like when you returned, after the long battle to reclaim the city from ISIS?
Alaa Hamdon: First time I put my feet in Mosul after June 2014, first time was September 2017, 25th September 2017. And I went to my house and it was a tragic moment to see my house been burned and my furniture been stolen, even my photos, my personal photos, being burned, my books, everything so I yeah it was tragic moment to see all that it’s very sad.
Holly Sommers: The deliberate destruction and theft of cultural and scientific heritage by ISIS has occurred in Iraq, Syria and Libya since 2014. Cultural and scientific institutions, such as Mosul University Library are often deliberately targeted due to their social and cultural importance, with the aim of destroying the population and their heritage. Dr Alaa, what was going through your mind when you returned to Mosul University library?
Alaa Hamdon: When I went to the university and I looked at the library, I stood in front of the library I still remember that moment, the library was destroyed and burned, I could still smell the burning, the smell of the ashes and the books, everything was black, pieces of books here and there been burnt, it was really sad moment to see the lighthouse of knowledge being destroyed and burned.
Holly Sommers: The rebuilding of these critical and valuable institutions and buildings is a crucial, but extremely difficult part of ensuring that science and higher education can flourish again. Dr Alaa, you took it upon yourself to issue a call for solidarity, support and assistance from universities, public libraries, organizations & institutions, publishing houses, and the media in order to rebuild Mosul University’s library collection and the library itself, could you tell us more about the initiative that you created once you had returned to Mosul?
Alaa Hamdon: After that moment, when I went to the library I gave a promise to myself that I will do my best to help that library back again. And I started my initiative, my campaign Mosul book bridge in 2017. And I sent my call to all my friends and asked them to help me help our library, our university. I sent that call to everyone and a lot of responses, including Book Aid International and the Young Academy of Scotland and Dar Al-Hekma and the embassy of Canada, and the British Council. And a lot of friends from different universities, different institutions from different countries, they wanted to help, and they did, they helped us a lot. And I really appreciate their help. I would never forget that. And after one year, the first shipment of books arrived, and so on. A lot of books arrived to the library, thousands of books.
Holly Sommers: Which international allies and collaborations have helped in regard to aiding the scientific and higher education community after such destruction? What kind of support did they offer you?
Alaa Hamdon: Mosul university received a lot of support from different countries. And the major supporters were UNDP, they rebuilt the library. And also different universities, international universities, local universities and different organizations, they helped Mosul University. And they wanted Mosul University to stand up again on their feet. And thankfully, Mosul University stood up again and back better than before.
Holly Sommers: What is still needed now for the Mosul University Library? And what can be done from both within Iraq and internationally to best support those needs?
Alaa Hamdon: A library being reopened again last February, I have been so happy for that. And yes, it has been rebuilt again, been open again, but still needs a lot of support. We need a lot of books, a lot of applications, electronic access, a lot of equipment, special equipment, regarding the Special Collections, a lot of training for the librarians. So the library of Mosul university still needs a lot of support. And I hope that whoever can hear this interview I would ask kindly and any support from them towards our library, any support would be appreciated much.
Holly Sommers: Dr Alaa, when the library reopened in spring 2022 it must have felt like a monumental moment. Why do you think buildings and institutions such as Mosul University library are so central in helping cities and citizens start to regain hope and rebuild their lives after catastrophe? What do they represent?
Alaa Hamdon: The library of Mosul University I think will be an icon for rebuilding. It will be a new hope for any destroyed country, any destroyed University, any destroyed library. This will be a hope for the future, it will be a message for not giving up and a lot of people will support you. You’re not alone. Trust me. One moment when I stood up in front of the library when it had been burned and destroyed. I thought the library would never back again. I thought this will be forgotten within the time, but no, it’s back, and it’s open again and embracing students and academics and researchers as before. So any destroyed library will be reopened again. And I’m sure a lot of people will help you and I would be happy to help you. Who will support you wherever you are.
Holly Sommers: After hearing Alaa’s story, we wanted to discuss the role of not only the ISC, but also the broader scientific community in supporting and advocating for at-risk, displaced and refugee scientists in times of crisis.
We’re joined by Vivi Stavrou, the Executive Secretary of the Committee for Freedom and Responsibility in Science (CFRS) and ISC Senior Science Officer. She is a Clinical Psychologist and development worker with extensive international experience in humanitarian emergencies and post-conflict situations. She has worked with the UN development agencies, government ministries, the NGO sector and academic institutions across areas such as child protection, mental health and psychosocial support, as well as Human Rights and security sector reform.
Vivi Stavrou: The Committee for Freedom and Responsibility in science (CFRS) is the guardian of the ISC’s principle of freedom and responsibility in science, and this principle sets out the basic freedoms that all humans should have.
Now science belongs to everybody. It’s a fundamental part of human culture. This is what we do as humans as we question and try to make sense of ourselves, our families, our societies, nature and the world around us. And then we develop and debate these ideas and theories of why things are and how the world works. We develop technologies, medicines, write books, and make art to help us create records of a specific time, place, and person; to make informed decisions to solve practical problems; express and communicate our ideas and make our surroundings more beautiful. We develop great educational institutions, scientific laboratories, libraries, art galleries to educate and show and store these great achievements. And as such, researchers, writers, scientists have played vitally important roles in human history, and are key members of contemporary society. This is why in times of conflict and war, these people who question how things work, who question power, whose work is key for economic and national development, quite frankly, become targets.
Now, in times of crisis, whether this is because of a human-induced natural disaster, like fire, catastrophic flooding, pandemic or ongoing conflict and even war, the very integrity and existence of science systems and infrastructure is threatened. Such catastrophes destroy physical infrastructure, and can displace untold numbers of people from their homes and countries. The fracture and the loss of a country’s science systems deals a damaging blow not only to domestic scientific investment, teaching and research, and to long term growth and sovereignty, but also to the global network of scientists and research infrastructures. The science sector has an important and underdeveloped role to mobilize the scientific community to play an active role in humanitarian response, not only to protect scholars and researchers, but also their findings, knowledge, contributions to science, and also these grand institutions and repositories of science.
So what do we do?
I’ll talk about the International Science Council’s work in this respect. We are currently working with partners across the organized scientific community, the NGOs, the UN, and the private sector, importantly science publishers and the science data platforms to develop a policy framework for supporting science in times of crisis, to formalize the support work that we are doing at the moment to develop a more effective joined up and long term approach to the protection of scientific communities and to the rebuilding of science systems in order to ensure two things: that the world is still able to benefit from scientific discovery, even when conflict and disaster strikes, and to have a long term and resourced approach on how to protect these very scientific communities to preserve and rebuild scientific knowledge systems and infrastructure in times of disaster and conflict, and the long process of rebuilding, post disaster and conflict.
All that I have been saying I think was captured very poignantly by Dr. Alaa when he said that, when he got to Europe, the support that he got from the NGO sector, and from the universities, is that “they opened the door for me, while all the doors were closed”. And really, this is at the heart of what we want to do. The onus is on the scientific community, to look at our own community, to direct our attention about how we can protect and support our own community in times of crisis, both by protecting the individual scientists, but also about working with our governments, working with the UN, working with the private sector, to direct very significant resources to the rebuilding of science systems, and scientific infrastructure post disaster, post conflict. We’re not only doing this for what may be perceived as the more narrow benefit of university education of academics and scientists, but really we’re doing this for the benefit of our whole history. Our cultural history, our scientific history, which means so much about who we are as humans, and it means so much about how we will develop, what ideas, what technologies we need to develop for human and environmental wellbeing in the future.
Holly Sommers: Thank you for listening to this episode of Science in Times of Crisis. In the next and final episode of our series we turn to the future to explore the growing role of so-called ‘Track II Organisations’ such as the International Science Council with ISC President Sir Peter Gluckman, and former director General of UNESCO Irina Bokova. We’ll discuss the importance of informal diplomatic channels such as science and culture in building and maintaining peace, the realities of science diplomacy in practice and the importance of ordinary scientists in fostering scientific collaboration.
— The opinions, conclusions and recommendations in this podcast are those of the guests themselves and not necessarily those of the International Science Council —
Find out more about the ISC’s work on freedom and responsibility in science
The right to share in and to benefit from advances in science and technology is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as is the right to engage in scientific enquiry, to pursue and communicate knowledge, and to associate freely in such activities.