In 2014, Abdullah Gharamah’s neighbourhood in Sanaa, Yemen, was being used for weapons storage by armed militants when his home was stormed by some of them, who threatened the lives of his family and largely destroyed his house.
That explains why, he says, the warmth and hospitality he’s received at the University of Alberta has been the most meaningful part of his time in Canada since arriving last year.
“It’s like heaven for me after this hard time in Yemen,” Dr. Gharamah said. The country has been devastated by civil war since late 2014.
Dr. Gharamah was the founding chair of the microbiology department at Hajjah University in Yemen, about 2½ hours northwest of the capital, Sanaa. But his research and his life were further interrupted when his neighbourhood was demolished in an air strike in the midst of the civil war.
He’s now been in Canada since September, 2018, and has begun to reintegrate himself into his work.
Dr. Gharamah is one of a number of scholars who have looked for a place of rest and refuge after having their lives and professions threatened by harassment as a result of their work, or of war. And Canada has played a major role in acting as a safe haven for at-risk academics. As a partner of the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF), Canada has enabled almost 30 professors, researchers and scientists to come to universities across Canada to continue their work.
Mark Angelson, vice chairman of the New York-based Institute of International Education (IIE) – a non-profit organization that advocates for international education exchange – said that saving academics means preserving the potential for their work to help others.
“[Scholars] can reach … so many more people then we could reach directly to teach people, the next generation or the generation after that,” said Dr. Angelson. “That’s what we’re about.”
Allan Goodman, president and CEO of the IIE, added that the University of Alberta was the first in Canada to approach his organization and ask for the designation of “haven university,” a term that refers to an academic institution that regularly accepts at risk-scholars through fellowship positions.
“The world has been hard on its scholars,” Dr. Goodman said. “[The University of] Alberta straight up said, 'You send us the best, we’ll take one every year.’ ”
Dr. Gharamah was one of those chosen.
His family is still in Yemen, where the war continues to endanger civilian lives. Last week, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project reported that more than 70,000 people have been killed since the beginning of 2016 as a result of the conflict.
Since arriving in Alberta, Dr. Gharamah has been working at the university as a postdoctoral fellow. He’s researching schistosomiasis, a deadly parasite that affects hundreds of millions of people, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. He’s looking at one host in particular – freshwater snails – to identify proteins within the snail that may help control the growth of the parasite.
Mustafa Bahran is another academic from Yemen who fled the country to escape violence with the help of the SRF. He now has a fellowship at Carleton University in Ottawa as a visiting professor.
His home, too, was destroyed, but he and his family escaped and donned disguises to flee north into Saudi Arabia in 2015. From there, they flew to the United States, where he taught for a time at the University of Oklahoma. In June, 2018, he moved to Ottawa for a position at Carleton in the physics department.
In Yemen, Dr. Bahran was a prolific presence in the science community, serving as the country’s electricity and energy minister and founding the country’s National Atomic Energy Commission. He also co-founded the Yemeni Scientific Research Foundation.
Now at Carleton, he’s teaching people the joy of his field.
“I’m an expert in teaching physics to people who do not love physics,” Dr. Bahran said.
He’s just finished his first semester at Carleton and plans on starting a new research project, the first he’s been able to do since early 2011.
Dr. Bahran will be attempting to measure just how effective laboratory work is when paired with lectures for introductory physics courses.
He’s also become a part of the Scholars at Risk (SAR) committee at the university. SAR is an international network of higher-education institutions that advocates for the protection of scholars and academic freedom. The organization plays another part in Canada’s role as sanctuary for imperilled researchers.
The Canadian section of SAR is headed by Melanie Adrian, a law professor at Carleton. She said the organization works to match scholars at the departmental level, as well as making sure they’re placed in an encouraging social environment. She said that since research can put people in danger, the protection of academics remains an important piece of the development of international education.
"It’s not one discipline that’s targeted. It’s not one community. It’s not one department. It just really depends on what is inconvenient at the time,” Dr. Adrian said.
And for Dr. Gharamah, no longer being a target has been invaluable.
“I was facing threats in my life because of the war. I was facing horrible conditions at that time when I got this fellowship," he said. “It was like a spark of hope at the end of a long, dark tunnel.”
Editor’s note: Editor's note (April 24, 2019): In an earlier version, a quotation by Mark Angelson was incorrectly attributed to Allan Goodman. Mark Angelson said that saving academics means preserving the potential for their work to help others. “[Scholars] can reach … so many more people then we could reach directly to teach people, the next generation or the generation after that,” said Dr. Angelson. “That’s what we’re about.” This version has been corrected.