Editor’s note: This article is part of a package of five articles about the obstacles that researchers in Arab countries face. Readers can access all of the articles on this page.
If Arab researchers in many countries face difficulties, such as cramped academic freedom or difficulties importing laboratory equipment, their problems may pale in comparison to those who have tried to manage research in conflict-affected countries such as Syria, Libya, and Yemen.
“Research life has been completely paralyzed in Yemen,” Ghania al-Naqeeb, a Yemeni nutrition researcher, said, speaking from Germany. “I could only stop working or seek an opportunity to emigrate abroad to make sure my research continued.”
The Al-Fanar Media survey of researchers working in Arab countries found that 91 percent of them want to emigrate. For Yemenis, that proportion appears higher. (See a related article, “Most Arab-World Researchers Want to Leave, a New Survey Finds.”)
Eqbal Dauqan, a Yemeni researcher and professor of biochemistry, also had to leave Yemen to continue her research and is now at Agder University, in Norway. “The war in Yemen has badly affected our lives as human beings as well as researchers,” Dauqan said. “… Research work seems a fantasy.” At this point, she said, researchers are better off trying to find a way to get out of Yemen. (See a related article, “New Beginning for a Yemeni Scholar in Norway.”)
No Money for Advanced Research
After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in agriculture at Damascus University, in Syria, al-Naqeeb spent nine years in Malaysia, where she got her master’s degree and her doctorate. She returned to Yemen in 2011 and worked as a professor at Sana’a University’s Faculty of Agriculture, where she tried to conduct her research.
“I was dedicating part of my monthly salary to buy my research supplies,” she said, “which were naturally simple and did not require complex equipment. There was not enough budget to do research at the university at an advanced level.” (Eighty-four percent of Arab researchers surveyed by Al-Fanar Media said they have had to spend their own money to support their research.)
Al-Naqeeb opened a small laboratory for breeding experimental animals and encouraged her students to do research. She published the results of five research projects and received $1,000 from the Al-Saeed Foundation for Science and Culture, which encourages Yemenis to pursue scientific research, and received support from the American Institute for Yemeni Studies.
“I was dedicating part of my monthly salary to buy my research supplies, which were naturally simple and did not require complex equipment.”Ghania al-Naqeeb
A Yemeni nutrition researcher who works in Germany
In 2015, the worsening political and security situation in Yemen began to affect her. Some university buildings were bombed, and others were turned into military barracks. Payment to civil servants, including teachers and professors, could be delayed for up to six months, and water and electricity supplies became irregular. Money transfers from international organizations into Yemen became increasingly difficult.
“Experimental animals died and research samples were destroyed,” said al-Naqeeb. “The majority of students and professors stopped studying. Even the scholarship I received from the World Academy of Sciences before the war stopped.”
Relocating to Germany
But the network of professional relations al-Naqeeb established during travel to international conferences before the war formed a lifeline. She had met a German researcher at a scientific conference in the United States and told him about her situation. He helped her secure a position at the University of Würzburg’s Faculty of Chemistry and Pharmacy.
But moving her research to Germany wasn’t easy. She faced difficulty getting a visa and difficulty getting approval to transport the plant samples she works on. Foreign embassies were closed due to the war. She eventually got certificates identifying her plant samples and certifying that they were free of diseases, fungi, and toxic substances.
“I was afraid they would be damaged during travel,” she said. “However, I managed to get approval to take three kilograms of each type. That was a great victory for me.”
“The war in Yemen has badly affected our lives as human beings as well as researchers. … Research work seems a fantasy.”Eqbal Dauqan
A Yemeni researcher now working in Norway
Al-Naqeeb also had to get the permission of her university to leave, and had to figure out how to get to Germany from Yemen, given that all commercial air traffic from Yemen had ended. She went to Sudan, where she spent four months waiting for a German visa.
Upon arriving in Germany, al-Naqeeb had difficulty communicating with her fellow researchers because of her lack of German. “My arrival to the German university was just the beginning. I had to learn the language, build professional relationships and prove myself as a researcher,” she said.
On the Move Again
Today, al-Naqeeb’s two-year position is at an end, and she has to find another place to do her research, since returning to Yemen is not an option. Her residency permit in Germany expires this month. Although many Arab researchers dream of moving to Europe, al-Naqeeb has found that it is not a panacea.
She is awaiting the publication of some of her research and a patent on some plant extracts that might treat diabetes and cardiac disease.
Dauqan, the Yemeni researcher who moved to Norway, calls al-Naqeeb “diligent, determined and willing.”
But al-Naqeeb has many moments of self doubt. “I lack stability in my life. Life and psychological pressures are growing,” she said. “I’m in constant conflict with myself whether I should keep looking for opportunities or stop.”