Film documents plight of Arab scientists in exile

Arab scientist
Copyright: TWAS/ Nicole Leghissa

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  • Documentary follows four Arab refugee scientists from Syria, Yemen, Iraq
  • A refugee scientist aspires to more than a new home and livelihood, says director
  • Film screened by US science academy after premiere at World Science Forum

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A 35-minute documentary that sheds light on the difficulties facing Arab scientists and students in forced exile is due to be screened this week (7 December) at the US National Academies of Science in Washington, DC.
‘Science in Exile’ was produced by The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) and premiered at the World Science Forum held in Jordan in November. It explores how wars in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq have ravaged the lives of four researchers who fled their homelands in search of safety, and an opportunity to resume their research or studies in host countries. In the film they share their concerns and stories on the journey to seeking asylum — and how they ended up as refugees rather than scientists.

“The documentary reveals the difficult journey of refugee scientists,”

Nicole Leghissa

Like any refugee who flees from war, the scientists seek a new home and a source of livelihood for themselves and their families. But, a refugee scientist aspires for more — “a laboratory or research centre to continue his scientific contributions” — according to Italian film director Nicole Leghissa.
"The documentary reveals the difficult journey of refugee scientists, showing that the idea of starting over is not an option,” Leghissa tells SciDev.Net. “[It also] highlights the fact that they are targeted in times of war and conflict."


The film has been produced with the support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). Its production took about seven months in both Lebanon and Turkey, according to Leghissa.
"The sad fact is that their countries are incapable of providing help for them, and some scientists might even not find a job opportunity in the diaspora, forced eventually to lose self-confidence at a time when humanity still needs them to offer what they have to research centres in their new communities,” Leghissa adds.
"The crisis in Syria has affected the past, the present and might even affect the future after Syria [has been] depleted of many of its scientists," said Saja Al Zoubi, one of the scientists featured in the film.
Some estimates suggest that more than half of Syrian doctors are now refugees.
Saja, who had to flee Syria for Lebanon after the deterioration of the security situation in Damascus, works as a social scientist. Her recent research focused on the economics of refugee families in Lebanon, especially households headed by women.
The concerns over security in Syria continue to haunt and disturb Saja, fearing the day when she might be banned from work in her host country. "At that time, [if that happens,] I will lose everything," she said.Researchers participating at the Forum workshop where the film premiered confirmed that the challenges begin after asylum. Among the challenges they face in host countries are the search for work, obtaining a residence permit in the country of asylum, the equivalence of scientific certificates, the existence of institutions that accept refugee scientists, and accessing grants and initiatives that will enable them to continue their scientific journey.
Highlighting initiatives to support refugee researchers, Celine Taminian, special adviser for the Middle East/North Africa region at the Institute of International Education's Scholar Rescue Fund, said that since its launch in 2004, the Fund has given nearly 726 grants to researchers who pursue master's, doctorate, and post-doctoral degrees.
Taminian explained that the plight of refugee scientists emerged after thousands of scientists fled Iraq in fear of retaliation by the government. The Fund began working with them at that time, and was able to support 280 Iraqi scientists —covering the costs of their research and studies in different fields of science.
The same effort is being made right now to support scientists from Syria, Yemen, and other countries affected by conflict.
But despite the opportunities and research grants provided by international organisations and civil society, the crisis is growing faster than the solutions. The solution lies only in ending conflicts, which are the main reason for the brain drain, especially in the Middle East, according to comments made after the film screening at the Forum.