Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • NATURE PODCAST

Podcast: A researcher seeks refuge, smart borders, and climate migration

This week, a migration special: a researcher seeks refuge, smart borders, and climate migration.

In this episode:

00:48 Refugee researcher

Scientist Kassem Alsayed Mahmoud recounts his perilous journey from war-torn Syria, to the Free University in Brussels. Feature: Stateless scientists; Scholars at Risk

10:23 Managing climate migration

Is the world ready to deal with the people that climate change forces from their homes? Nature Podcast: 15 January 2015; Alaska Institute for Justice

17:23 Numbers in context

The European migrant crisis has drawn attention due to the huge numbers involved. But are the numbers unprecedented? Feature: Where refugees are going

19:10 Smart borders

Can we trust computers to decide who can cross our borders? Comment: Protect rights at automated borders

Never miss an episode: Subscribe to the Nature Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app. Head here for the Nature Podcast RSS feed.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-02705-2

Transcript

This week, a migration special: a researcher seeks refuge, smart borders, and climate migration.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Millions of people cross international borders every day. This process is often easy, even mundane. But for some, it can be a matter of life and death.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

In this week’s special show we bring you three pieces on migration and research. We meet Kassem a scientist who risked his life leaving his country.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

We also ask whether the world’s current system are ready to deal with the migration caused by climate change.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Plus we take a look at smart boarders and the potential danger of letting a computer decide who’s allowed into a country.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

This is the Nature Podcast for March the 2nd2017. I’m Noah Baker.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

And I’m Adam Levy.

Out of 4.7 million Syrian refugees currently estimated to be living outside their home country, as many as 2,000 are academics. One of them is Kassem. Kassem and his family fled Syria in 2012 and went to Turkey. There he applied for an academic position in Europe through a programme called ‘Scholars at risk’ which helps academics who are threatened or attacked. A year and a half ago he arrived in Belgium. Kerri Smith went to meet him there.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Kassem could hardly have been given a more Belgian project when he first arrived at Gent University. In Syria he had been trying to start a lab studying edible oils. He’s a food scientist. But in his new country…

Interviewee: Kassem Alsayed Mahmoud

I work on chocolate. So, it was the first time I was working on this kind of project. In Gent University we’ve tested a lot of chocolate and different kinds of chocolates.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Kassem enjoyed the novelty of tasting chocolates on the job and he was grateful to be doing what he had trained to do. But the way he personalised his project shows just how much he misses what he’s left behind.

Interviewee: Kassem Alsayed Mahmoud

I tried to invent a new kid of chocolate. So, I tried to make a marriage between the orient and chocolate.

[Music]

Interviewee: Kassem Alsayed Mahmoud

So, I tried to make a mixture between chocolate and these black cumin seeds.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Kassem’s chocolate job was funded for a year which wasn’t enough time to develop the product properly. Then he was offered a scholarship in Brussels – one of 10 refugees to be taken on by the University, 9 Syrians and 1 Iraqi. The scholarship runs for 2 years, but even if his job is secure for that long, he feels in limbo. For one thing, his wife and 3 kids are still in Turkey waiting to hear if they can join him.

Interviewee: Kassem Alsayed Mahmoud

I can say I’m happy and I’m not happy at the same time… Happy to find a scholarship and to get it for 2 years, but I’m not happy because I have nothing now related to my country.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Kassem had lived in Europe before, under very different conditions. He did a PhD and a postdoc in Nancy in France. He’s more comfortable speaking French than English. He’d always planned to go back to Syria so in 2009 he re-joined the staff at .. University in a town called … in the East of Syria. He looked for funding to start his own lab. At the end of 2010 he had to do a year of compulsory military service, postponed because he’d been studying. His service was meant to run for a year and he tried to keep up with his students whenever he had a day off.

Interviewee: Kassem Alsayed Mahmoud

When I would get a holiday, for example, within my military service, I came back to my faculty and met my students because I had Masters students and I had to find some time for them.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

But in 2011, as Kassem was anticipating the end of his time with the army, the rumblings of conflict began.

Interviewee: Kassem Alsayed Mahmoud

So, the Syrian regime, they forced up us to stay in the army. Even if you were a professor in the university, you had to stay. So they told us that maybe 1 month, 2 months, and you will be released. 7 months later and no way – you have to stay.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Kassem couldn’t sit patiently and wait for the army to let him go. This wan’t just an inconvenience to his research problem to be resolved by biding his time. He was horrified that he’d ended up on the wrong side of a war. Or any war at all.

I’m not a soldier; I’m not a fighter. I’m a professor at a university and it’s not my mission to get armed and killed people. They gave me a Kalashnikov before but I gave it back when I finished my military service and I didn’t ever use it. We are human; we are not created for getting arms and killing people.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

You might be able to see where this is going. Kassem deserted. He’s had the plan in his head for a while but not the specifics. In the event, he left the military centre in Damascus and went to an apartment owned by a brother in a nearby suburb, planning to leave the area as soon as he could borrow a non-military ID card. But his timing was terrible. The city borders were closed because of a bombing. A full month later, a friend managed to get him his brother’s ID. Only a few days after they were reunited, his brother was killed in an attack by the Syrian army. Kassem’s family pushed him to leave.

Interviewee: Kassem Alsayed Mahmoud

Leaving the country in this situation was so dangerous, because if you are arrested by the regime, you are killed.

[Music]

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

And then, the bureaucracy began. Kassem contacted ‘Scholars at Risk’ who were at first too snowed under to help. As an indication, the organization says that they had 560 applications in 2016 and were able to place under 200 scholars. 2 years of fruitless job-searching and Kassem contacted the programmeagain. This time they could help, with the place at Gent. A complex visa process took up even more time, ping-ponging between embassies in France and Belgium and the threat of having to go back to Turkey to apply again. I confirmed with ‘Scholars at Risk’ that this kind of wait isn’t unusual and it’s worse for scholars applying from their home country. I asked Kassem if he thought, despite all the hoop-jumping, that it was more likely that a researcher could find a job, than someone working in another profession.

Interviewee: Kassem Alsayed Mahmoud

Yes of course, I think that being a researcher or a scientist – it was very helpful. Else I wouldn’t have found a job very easily. I couldn’t have been invited by a university and I think also in the research domain, we are trying to help each other.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Kassem knows that a lot of Syrian academics haven’t been so fortunate. Those still in Syria, are in danger. In 2016, a doctor believed to be the last paediatricianin the rebel-held part of Aleppo was killed in an air strike on a hospital. And those Kassem knows who’ve escaped to Turkey, can’t find jobs in science.

Interviewee: Kassem Alsayed Mahmoud

They are working, for example, at restaurants or maybe another domain. So you can imagine – a professor at a university and he cannot find a good job for himself now. And education is very important in our life. If you lose education in each country or anywhere you lose that generation. If you leave, for example, Syria like this and if most of the researchers and scientists were killed or arrested, how can you build your country again? And how can you help a new generation?

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

He thinks about this all the time – going back and rebuilding. He sometimes thinks about his lab. Just before his military service began he managed to buy neatoscan: a piece of equipment the size of a printer that analyses lipids. It was hard to get the money for it and hard to get it to arrive.

Interviewee: Kassem Alsayed Mahmoud

So finally I got one of my important instruments but I didn’t have a chance to test it or to open it When the war started.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

So is it still sitting there in your lab or…?

Interviewee: Kassem Alsayed Mahmoud

I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s destroyed or maybe somebody took it. I don’t know.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Kassem’s biggest hope is for peace in his home country and in the meantime for a little taste of stability for him and his family. He hasn’t seen them except for on Skype since 2015. Turkey has closed its borders to Syrians so he can’t go and visit them. As this show aired he was still waiting for news on his family’s visa application. Being a scientist has freed him but only in a very limited sense of that word. He doesn’t know what will happen once his scholarship in Brussels is up. It’ll have to be another job because he doesn’t like the idea of government handouts. But he does have this business idea: another way of using his food science expertise to blend the two cultures he has moved between.

Interviewee: Kassem Alsayed Mahmoud

I have also made chocolate from camel milk.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Camel milk?

Interviewee: Kassem Alsayed Mahmoud

Yes, yes. I just thought about the mix between the orient and the occident.

Subjects

Nature Careers

Jobs

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing

Search

Quick links