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The journey of refugee scientists

The journey of refugee scientists

Thousands of scientists and engineers have fled conflict zones in recent years, seeking safety. At the 2017 World Science Forum in Jordan, TWAS will premiere its new film, "Science in Exile", and explore the topic in a high-level session.

DEAD SEA, JORDAN – Conflict and war in recent years have forced millions of people to leave their homes in the Middle East and North Africa. Most have arrived in adjoining countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and some 1.5 million have arrived in Europe. Others have travelled as far as South Africa, Malaysia, Canada and Brazil.

Among them are uncounted thousands of professionals and students in science – fields such as chemistry, biology and climate, but also engineering, medicine, and the social sciences. Some have found new laboratories in the safety of new countries, and are working to make new scientific contributions. Many others are caught in a web of uncertainty, living precariously in a new country while looking for safety and a chance to resume their work or studies.

The travels – and the struggles – of these refugee and displaced scientists are the focus of a new documentary film, "Science in Exile", directed by Italian filmmaker Nicole Leghissa in cooperation with The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS). "Science in Exile" will provide the starting point for a high-level, 90-minute discussion at the World Science Forum in Jordan, organised by TWAS and UNESCO.

The discussion, in a session called "The Journey of Refugee Scientists", will be held on Thursday 9 November 2017 at 11:30am in Mount Nebo 1&2 at the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Centre - Sea Floor.

Making its world premiere, "Science in Exile" will be screened in full on Wednesday 8 November at 6:15pm in the Cinema Room at the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Centre. The film explores how recent conflict in Syria, Yemen and Iraq has threatened the lives of four researchers, forcing them to suspend their work and flee their homelands. Ms. Leghissa and some of the scientists and experts appearing in the 35-minute film will attend the screening. The film was produced with the generous support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).

Additional screenings at the World Science Forum:

  • Thursday 9 November – 18:15
  • Friday 10 November – 12:20

The theme of the World Science Forum 2017 is "Science for Peace". Both the TWAS film and the panel discussion are guided by a fundamental assumption: Recently displaced scientists have much to offer to research centres in their new communities, and someday, they could make significant contributions to rebuilding in their home countries. But too often they must suspend their work as they struggle just to survive; they live in the shadows, and the world has heard little about their work and their potential.

Saja Al Zoubi is a Syrian social scientist and former TWAS research fellow who is featured in the film. Al Zoubi is now living in Lebanon, where her work has focused on the makeshift camps that shelter thousands of displaced Syrian agricultural families, many headed by women. Her research could contribute to new interventions in support of the refugees.

"Instability is affecting me badly as a scientist," she says. "The main effect is the inability to work on the research and development objectives essential for the population. But also, at personal level, it affects me by making me helpless to practice my profession and contribute. And I am in continuous fear, not knowing what will happen to me if the host country government cannot assure my permission to stay."

The Thursday morning session will begin with the screening of a four-minute trailer of the new film. That will be followed by presentations from a Syrian refugee scientist and from leading figures in national and international organisations that provide support for refugee and displaced scientists, and then by a discussion of the issues.

The speakers will be:

The panel will be moderated by Edward Lempinen, the TWAS public information officer.

The challenges that have confronted Sadiddin and Al Zoubi have affected thousands of scientists, engineers, doctors and medical researchers, and advanced science students.

But "Science in Exile" pierces through the common stereotype of refugees that is fashioned in contemporary political communication and news coverage. It takes viewers into the lives of women and men with years of training and experience who are struggling to find a place in new lands – a safe place where they can continue their research.

"The film presents a scientific story, but also a deeply human story," says Leghissa. "It is  about men and women who have been dedicated to science even as they endure war, and even when they flee and arrive in a new land. They are seeking safety in this new world, but just as important, they want to continue to make valuable scientific contributions."

The panel discussion will explore in deeper detail the experience of refugee scientists, their needs, and key issues for top policymakers and educational leaders in the MENA region, Europe and North America. Schlegel will highlight the UNESCO Science@Risk Initiative, which promotes the comprehensive protection of global scientific capital in cases of violent conflict and disasters.

Jazar says LASeR, too, is working to protect and develop scientific capability by educating young Syrians displaced by war. LASeR is the biggest local non-governmental organisation giving scholarships to Syrian refugees in the Middle East, and one of its flagship programmes is the University Scholarship for Syrian students in Lebanon. The programme has 180 alumni and 500 grantees for the last academic year.

"We are now giving scholarships for bachelors and masters degrees, and even PhDs, for Syrians," Jazar says. "This is giving hope for people who had stopped their studies in Syria and would’ve been stuck in a limbo and a potential lost generation otherwise."

Jazar and LASeR are also featured in "Science in Exile".

The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries is emerging as a leader in the field of refugee and displaced scientists, providing information to scientists from the affected region and working to build bridges between scientific communities and policymakers in the South and North. Its March 2017 science diplomacy workshop, "Refugee Scientists: Transnational Resources", produced a detailed set of recommendations.