Yemeni scholar finds refuge at UAlberta

For postdoctoral fellow Abdullah Gharamah, the UAlberta experience has been a "spark at the end of a long dark tunnel."

Tim Querengesser - 17 May 2019

One day, Abdullah Gharamah watched in horror as a missile landed on his next-door neighbour's house and flattened it into rubble. "My neighbours were killed, three families in one shot," Gharamah says.

It was 2014 and Gharamah, along with his daughter and wife, were living in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen. The country was suddenly being torn in two by a coup and civil war, pitting neighbour against neighbour. The war continues to this day and, based on estimates from the United Nations and press agencies, has killed as many as 60,000 people, with 13 million facing the spectre of famine.

Gharamah was an assistant professor of parasitology at Hajjah University until the war broke out. But as it did, the conflict quickly transformed his life. Militants soon broke into his own house, kicked his family out and used his flat as a sniper nest and weapons cache. It was then that Gharamah, his wife and his daughter were forced to run for their lives.

The family fled to another place in the capital, Sana'a, but focused on finding even safer circumstances in another country as refugees. Then Gharamah's university salary was frozen, plunging his family deeper into desperation. Gharamah decided to try to find a quicker way out of danger for himself and his family. Given his university research and international experience as a scholar in Malaysia, he applied for help at universities around the world. By this point, his life had "become impossible."

His plan worked. Fast-forward to today and Gharamah is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alberta (UAlberta). He has come to Canada through the Institute of International Education's (IIE) Scholar Rescue Fund, in partnership with UAlberta. The program and move to Edmonton has "saved" him, Gharamah says, as well as allowed him to continue his research in a safe environment.

To get to this point, where he is safe and awaits his family has required a lot of help from a lot of people. One of them is Patrick Hanington.

Hanington is an associate professor in the School of Public Health, and is Gharamah's supervisor at UAlberta. The two started communicating in 2018, and it soon became apparent that Gharamah's work on parasites is similar to Hanington's work on disease transmission from snails to humans.

One of the requirements for the IIE's Scholar Rescue Fund is that any host school accepting a scholar must have a supervisor who is willing to take them on as a researcher. Hanington determined he was. And in late 2018, Gharamah arrived in Edmonton and started working with him.

Hanington admits he wasn't sure how the experience would work out, but adds that he has been happily surprised. "It's a leap of faith, but [Dr. Gharamah] has worked out very well," he says. "He's integrated in the lab very well with the other researchers. UAlberta International has helped him meet other people from Yemen and Syria. I couldn't be happier. He's also willing to share his amazing story. It gives you a sense of how fortunate you are to not worry about your university being attacked or people being abducted."

Sky McLaughlin, a regional manager at UAlberta International who coordinates the university's participation in the Scholar Rescue Program, says Gharamah is the school's fifth rescue scholar admitted to date, with the first dating back as early as 2009. McLaughlin says three of the scholars have come to UAlberta from Syria, and the first one came from Zimbabwe. In 2018, UAlberta was honoured with the prestigious IIE Beacon Award in recognition of its efforts to provide a safe venue for refugee scholars.

While UAlberta has been able to support numerous scholars through the program, the process is nevertheless challenging for them. McLaughlin says scholars seeking refuge must first apply to the IIE in New York, which in turn reaches out to partner schools to find good fits. If everything goes according to plan, the scholar can move, but must often struggle to bring their family once they do.

"The ideal [for the rescue scholar] is to secure academic work in Canada or another country," McLaughlin says. But, she adds, the challenge for the scholar is often dealing with the trauma they have just experienced, as well as loss. "Their trauma is revisited by the separation [from their family] when they're here. The immigration challenges are never ending and quite baffling."

Gharamah has found community in Edmonton but, unsurprisingly, remains focused on reuniting with his family. His daughter, who is now 11, and his wife, still living in Sana'a, are never far from his thoughts.

"The people here are very helpful and kind," he says. "They provide me with all of what I need. For me it was a wonderful experience to be here, like a spark at the end of a long dark tunnel."