Refugee Week UK 2021, 14th June - 20th June
Higher education institutions in the UK have a long tradition of providing sanctuary for academics and young people forced to flee conflict and persecution and find safety elsewhere. To build further on support measures already in place, the University of Aberdeen has committed to become a 'University of Sanctuary' to develop a culture of welcome within our own institution and the wider communities. As we prepare to support Refugee Week 2021, current student, Zaher, discusses his own experiences coming to the University of Aberdeen and provides a personal insight on the importance of such initiatives.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, what you are studying, how did you get into that field, is this what your background is in etc.?
I am Zaher Al Bakour, a final year PhD candidate in Pharmacology. I started this degree after completing my master’s in Clinical Pharmacology at the University of Aberdeen and my bachelor’s in pharmacy at the University of Aleppo. Currently, I am conducting research at the early stages of drug development for Pulmonary hypertension, which is still considered as an unmet medical need. Understanding the disease and defining new targets for treatment is still an ongoing challenge. So far, we have uncovered the utility of a new target (PDE1C) and its role in the disease development. This enabled us to uncover the effects of using a selective PDE1C inhibitor for treating the disease and combining the inhibitor with current clinical therapies.
How did you come to study at the University of Aberdeen?
The University of Aberdeen opened the door for me throughout its Shining Lights Scholarship programme with the support of the Council of At-Risk Academics (CARA) to start my new academic life in studying my master’s. This support was even continued throughout my full 4-year PhD studies which was a unique chance to do great work and meet exceptional people without whom, all my dreams could have been lost.
Can you tell us a bit about your life before you came to Aberdeen?
Before I came to Aberdeen, my life was full of risk and danger. All my dreams and goals I had been working on were completely impossible to achieve as the war led my country to years of devastation and hopelessness. Every now and then, I call all my memories of escaping explosions, hiding from sniper shots, and evacuating buildings under heavy attacks. Whatever the situation and the risk was at any point, I had to continue going to the University and my job at a pharmaceutical company risking my life on daily bases.
What ways do you think the University community can be more supportive? (Both in the process of coming to the university and during your time at university?)
The university can be supportive in many ways for any candidate before and after they come to the University. I think establishing a mini mentorship program could serve a huge advantage for the new candidates. The old fellows can help guiding and navigating the new candidates throughout the university systems, available support and services and help them with their life outside the University. This would not only help them to feel welcomed and supported, it would also make their integration experience easier. I found that the University already has a lot of valuable services which I found useful during key stages of my time at the University.
What have you found most challenging so far during your time in Aberdeen?
A few months after I arrived in Aberdeen where the most challenging period during my time in Aberdeen. Although I was totally focused on my busy master’s programme schedule, I reached a critical stage of depression and feeling nostalgic especially that I had no one outside the Uni to speak to. Having a small community with a special focus on welcoming students from at-risk areas could serve a huge benefit for not only their academic performance, but also for their whole new life.
What advice would you give to other students from similar circumstances thinking about coming to university?
Coming to the University of Aberdeen is going to be the door for your future dreams. You will be welcomed with open arms, amazing love and huge support. The only thing you have to do is never stop chasing your dreams. You will get to work with exceptional students and professionals who are extremely passionate about what they do. You get a chance to engage with amazing communities alongside developing and gaining key technical and transferable skills.
Do you want to share anything else?
That last thing I would like to share is that I have got a unique chance to do great work and meet exceptional people without whom, all my dreams could have been lost. I am speechless about how grateful I am for supporting me to have this one-in-life opportunity. But what I can say is that I am so grateful for rescuing me from a life full of risk and danger to a life full of success and shine. Without your support, I, my wife and my 3-year-old girl could have disappeared. Thanks to the moon and back!
I am very touched to read Zaher's comments. I agree with him regarding a supportive community for students who come from at-risk areas. You have my admiration for perseverance to fulfil your dreams and overcome the trauma of civil war. Well done.