Saja Al Zoubi, a social sciences researcher, was on her way from Damascus to Aleppo for her PhD thesis oral examination when shots were fired at the bus she was travelling in. The route the vehicle was taking was thought to be safe.
“The driver sped up and they fired at the bus. Fortunately no one got hurt, but it was the most frightening experience I've ever seen,” she said.
Although especially terrifying, that attack on the bus was just one of “many incidents” Dr Al Zoubi faced while in her home country.
Increasingly unnerved in a nation engulfed by civil war, she moved to Lebanon the following year, one among thousands of Syrian academics to have taken flight. Other researchers have left Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq, ending up in countries as diverse as Malaysia, South Africa, Italy, Germany, the United States and Canada.
“How many displaced scientists are there? I don't think anybody knows. The migration has been so huge from these countries in such a short time, it's everything these [host] nations can do to find places for these people to sleep,” Edward Lempinen, public information officer for The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), an organisation that provides assistance to displaced researchers, said at the World Science Forum at the Dead Sea in Jordan.
“We know about half of Syria's doctors have left the country or been displaced in the conflict. That's 5,000 doctors. If you project that into the academic community in Syria, which was vibrant, it's a significant number.”
TWAS has supported the production of a new documentary directed by an Italian filmmaker, Nichole Leghissa, entitled “Science in Exile”. The film received its première at the WSF.
Among those featured is Allan Goodman, the president of the Institute of International Education (IIE), who highlighted in the documentary one of the key concerns linked to scientists in countries mire in turmoil: that they are targeted “much more often than we would expect”. They are, he said in the film, “the most respected people in their community”, so attacking them can “silence a whole community”.
Although the scale of the problem is large, so is the response to it, with a number of initiatives set up to help fleeing academics who specialise in science and other disciplines. Among them is the IIE Scholar Rescue Fund, which helps by, for example, providing funds for relocation. Over the past 15 years it has assisted more than 700 scholars from 58 countries find roles at 43 institutions.
TWAS's Mr Lempinen said assisting scientists was not about deciding that “a scientist is more important than a farmer”. Instead, the idea is that if scientists can be helped to continue their research elsewhere, they might eventually be able to return to their home country and carry out work that could be of value to that society.
“If you help a scientist today who is a refugee, perhaps the pay off for the rest of the community is not immediate, but in the span of years it will be,” he said.
To maximise the chances that scientists and other academics can, indeed, eventually go back home, it is seen as important not to relocate them too far away. This has been a priority of the IIE Scholar Rescue Fund when dealing with refugee researchers from the Middle East. For example, of the more than 280 Iraqi academics that it has assisted, over 100 found safety in Jordan.
“It was crucial to keep these scholars in the region so they could stay close to their families and home institutions. We encouraged them to return to their home institutions where conditions permitted,” said Celine Taminian, the fund's special advisor for the Middle East and North Africa.
While many scholars have been able to continue with their research in the countries they have settled in, for others finding a role commensurate with their qualifications and abilities has been a challenge.
Dr Al Zoubi was awarded a short-term research fellowship in Lebanon but, with that now completed, she faces the potentially difficult task of finding another position. Countless other displaced scientists have had to leave their research behind completely.
“I'm looking for an opportunity if another organisation or another institution can host me or give me an opportunity to work or get a post-doc,” she said.
In Lebanon, the situation is, she said, “too tough” for Syrians like her.