Iraq’s three recent wars and the sectarian violence that followed the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 had a deep psychological impact on Hadeel Abdelhameed as a young scholar in Baghdad.
She and her family managed to find refuge in Australia in August 2011, where she started a new life in research and education.
In commemoration of World Refugee Day, observed on June 20, Al-Fanar Media presents Abdelhameed’s story as the first in a series of articles on female academics who rebuilt their lives after fleeing from conflict zones.
In 2010, Abdelhameed had just received a master’s degree in contemporary American drama from the University of Baghdad and started teaching there in its College of Languages.
In a recent Zoom interview, she told Al-Fanar Media how she faced several difficulties during her work as a faculty member. These included gender discrimination, the lack of academic freedom, inadequate facilities and supplies, and the constant risk of violence and explosions, which frequently hit the Iraqi capital at that time.
She had already felt the trauma of three wars, starting with the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988), which led to her father’s imprisonment in Iran for 20 years. Then came the hardships of the first Gulf War, which followed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and the allied invasion of Iraq in 2003.
She felt she was living in a state of “tremendous shock” and constant fear.
Adjusting to a New Education System
“Life gave me this opportunity for me and my family. I had no choice but to invest in it, through integration, professional advancement and academic publishing.”Hadeel Abdelhameed
In Australia, Abdelhameed breathed a sigh of relief, yet her challenges were far from over. She faced new obstacles stemming from the “great disparity” in the education systems of her home country and her country of asylum, as well as the challenges of learning how to network with the research community in Australia and abroad.
She also had to help her children adjust to Australian schools.
Nevertheless, she worked hard to obtain a specialised diploma in higher education from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, before turning to look for graduate scholarships. These efforts helped her understand the Australian education system, get to know the research community in Australia, and learn how to publish research there.
Her integration into Australian society helped her achieve rapid academic advancement and obtain job opportunities in Australian universities. “Refugees should have the will to interact and adapt with the host communities, without abandoning societal customs and religious traditions,” she said.
Refugees from war-torn countries have a great deal of experience, qualifications and skills that can be used in host countries once they overcome the difficulty of integration, she added.
Abdelhameed, who is now a scholar at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University, says she is proud to be a refugee and an academic in Australia. She views herself as a product of this exile, asylum, and the new life she started from scratch and reshaped her identity.
“Life gave me this opportunity for me and my family,” she said. “I had no choice but to invest in it, through integration, professional advancement and academic publishing.”
Help from Other Academics
In her exile, Abdelhameed got a Ph.D. from La Trobe University, in Melbourne, with a research thesis comparing how war stories are presented in theatre in Iraq and Australia.
“My personal knowledge of how many refugees failed to integrate and get a job in Australia makes me aware of Hadeel’s effort and determination to overcome these difficulties. I see her as an extraordinary woman.”Glenda Hambley An Australian academic at La Trobe University, in Melbourne
Abdelhameed met other scholars in the diaspora who supported her academic career and nominated her to complete her postgraduate studies and later work for several research centres. One of them is Glenda Hambly, a professor of English and creative writing at La Trobe University.
Hambly first met Abdelhameed in 2015 when they collaborated during their Ph.D. studies at La Trobe University. They cemented their relationship later through research projects.
In an email, Hambly told Al-Fanar Media that establishing a life in a new country is difficult for everyone. “However, Hadeel’s determination, positivity in dealing with issues, and flexibility made her thrive and increase her expertise in various research fields,” she said.
Her success was reflected in her activity in scientific networks to help Arab and Australian academics enhance their research capabilities.
“My personal knowledge of how many refugees failed to integrate and get a job in Australia makes me aware of Hadeel’s effort and determination to overcome these difficulties,” Hambly added. “I see her as an extraordinary woman.”
Hambly says that Abdelhameed’s constant passion to explore everything new has helped her to integrate quickly. This was reflected in her employment of her deep knowledge of gender issues in Iraq, and in the production of research based on a comparison between the conditions of women and theatre in the two countries.
Difficulties at Home and in Exile
“I stress the importance of institutional and psychological support for migrants from conflict countries, especially those who wish to continue their academic and research career. We are victims of wars that forced us to flee. Many of us are living their suffering without any real support.”Hadeel Abdelhameed
To confront the difficulties facing Iraqi female academics at home and abroad, Abdelhameed established an online support system for Iraqi women scholars, the Iraqi Women Academics Network, or IWAN.
“The network is a project to enable me to transfer my experiences to help Iraqi female academics face the difficulties they encounter, at home and abroad,” she said. “I aspire to turn it into an institution that helps Iraqi women publish their research and qualify to participate in research conferences.”
Abdelhameed has also worked as a scholar specialising in Iraqi women’s studies at Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
Writing research papers on Iraq is a means of communicating with her country, following up on its conditions, and exploring the extent of the change that has befallen it, she said. “It also emphasises my adherence to my Iraqi identity despite the far distance.”
Ghada Fathi, an Iraqi academic, told Al-Fanar Media in an email that Abdelhameed’s research sheds light on “knowledge gaps” about contemporary Iraqi society, especially on issues related to women.
Fathi, who is a scholar and translator at an official institution in Baghdad, added that Abdelhameed’s doctoral thesis was “an important break in finding gender differences between people who live in war and those who watch it from far away, through theatrical representations and comparisons between Australia and Iraq.”
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At the conclusion of our interview, Abdelhameed stressed the importance of institutional and psychological support for migrants from conflict countries, especially those who wish to continue their academic and research careers.
“We are victims of wars that forced us to flee,” she said. “Many are living their suffering without any real support.”