Persistence and passion pay off for Syrian engineering student

    Dr Ahlam Abdulnabi shares her experience of coming from Syria to complete her Master's and PhD at the University of Alberta.

    By Isabela Varela on October 25, 2017

    In Arabic, the word Ahlam means “dreams.”

    It’s a fitting name for Ahlam Abdulnabi, 31, a PhD candidate in the University of Alberta’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering who has followed her academic dreams with unshakable focus.

    As a young girl, Ahlam wanted to be an astronaut. “In Syria, we have more of a Russian influence, so growing up I always heard about Valentina Tereshkova and all these scientists and astronauts, and it was inspiring to me,” she says.

    The eldest of four children, Ahlam is the only one in her family to pursue a university degree. In early 2010, when she was wrapping up her undergraduate degree in civil engineering at Damascus University and looking into graduate programs in the U.S., one of her professors encouraged her to meet with a representative from University of Alberta International (UAI) who was in town on an international relations and recruitment mission for the U of A.

    “At the time I hadn’t thought of Canadian universities,” she says.

    Ahlam remembers her meeting with Sky McLaughlin, UAI’s regional manager for the Middle East and Africa, as a game changer. “She told me about the facilities and the community and the inclusive culture here at the U of A and in Canada in general, and I was like, ‘Oh, this sounds fabulous. That would be something that I would really love to be a part of.’”

    “In Damascus University, we have a pretty good theoretical program, but we don’t have the infrastructure for laboratories,” she explains. “It was my supervisor at the time who said, ‘If you want to have the real feel of having a graduate degree, you need to go out into the world, to big universities, and learn there.’”

    Making the big move

    Despite never having been to North America, Ahlam moved to Edmonton in September 2010 to begin a master’s program in geotechnical engineering. It was a big transition, to go from an undergraduate degree that was entirely in Arabic to the intensified academic pace of grad school in another language.

    “I remember the first week I came, I was a week late, school had already started. I registered in three courses, and one of them was really advanced,” she says. “And it was still not easy for me to sit in a classroom where the professor is speaking English with the terminology and nomenclature and all that. The first half of the semester, I was like, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’”

    Newly married, Ahlam was also living alone in a barely furnished apartment on campus, working to get her husband’s documents processed so he could join her. She struggled with homesickness and made many long-distance phone calls home, but she stayed focused, got through all of her assignments and labs, and her husband Haytham was in Edmonton before the end of fall term.

    Unexpected complications

    By winter term, Ahlam was sitting in her classes feeling nauseous and tired and wondering “What the heck is happening to me?”

    She learned that she was expecting, and as her pregnancy progressed, her symptoms worsened. She had hyperemesis gravidarum, a pregnancy complication characterized by severe nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and dehydration that is estimated to affect about two per cent of women.

    “It was really hard,” says Ahlam. “I couldn't even keep water down. They tried to give me all kinds of medications, but none of them really worked.”

    Unable to attend school, she was hospitalized for 10 days and had to drop her classes.

    Ahlam may have been down, but she wasn’t out. She and her husband stayed in Edmonton, and in the fall of 2011 they welcomed their son Yusef. By January 2012, she was back in school, with support from her husband and her mother who came from Damascus for a time to help out with the baby.

    Because she had graduated at the top of her engineering class at Damascus University, Ahlam had a scholarship from the Syrian government to fund her studies at the U of A. Without it, she says, she could not have afforded to go abroad.

    After the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, Ahlam lost that funding. That’s when environmental engineering professor Ward Wilson, who holds the NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Oil Sands Tailings Geotechnique and supervised Ahlam’s master’s thesis, stepped in to support her so she wouldn’t have to withdraw again.

    “He supported me financially, and he continues to this day to support me in every way,” says Ahlam. “He has afforded me opportunities to grow both professionally and personally.”

    Ahlam also points out that Wilson, widely recognized as one of the top researchers in his field, was a major factor in her decision to apply to the U of A in the first place. “I am truly fortunate to be able to work with a world-class expert such as Dr. Wilson,” she says. “To be able to be a part of his team—to work with the researchers and do research under his supervision—is a true privilege for me.”

    Paying it forward

    After completing her master’s degree in geotechnical engineering, Ahlam went on to pursue a PhD in geoenvironmental engineering, also under Wilson’s supervision.

    Her research deals with the reclamation of mine waste—a topic that is especially relevant in the context of Alberta’s oilsands industry. Her thesis, “Prediction of Rainfall Runoff in Geoenvironmental Engineering Practice,” provides a laboratory and numerical modelling framework for the comprehensive physical evaluation of rainfall runoff responses in soil cover systems, which are engineered barriers designed to isolate hazardous mine waste from climatic water and oxygen.

    Having recently submitted her thesis, Ahlam is now preparing for her defense while also teaching graduate labs in geotechnical engineering, designing a course based loosely on her PhD thesis which she hopes to teach in the future, and being a mom to her active and inquisitive six year old.

    It’s a lot to juggle, but Ahlam is full of gratitude for the support she has received over the years from her professors and colleagues, her department, and the university in general, and she talks about wanting to “give back to the community” as she wraps up her studies. She currently sits on the planning committee for a new campus initiative meant to support graduate students with children, and she’d like to get involved with programs for new Syrian students on campus, such as UAI’s Supporting Syrian Newcomers Project. “It would be great to pay it forward,” she says.

    A new home

    Today Ahlam dreams of parlaying her PhD into a career in academia so that her husband, who studied transportation engineering in Syria, can also pursue graduate studies at the U of A. Eventually, she would like to go back to her country and be a part of rebuilding efforts, but for now she connects with her family almost daily through WhatsApp, and they exchange pictures and video online. Her parents have no plans to leave Syria, and Ahlam and her husband now consider Canada a second home.

    “The beauty of it is that it’s so diverse, and it’s so inclusive,” she says. “We’ve been here for seven years, and it’s the only home that my son knows. So, this is also home, you know?”