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An interview with... Dr Hadia Almahli

Written by Eleanor Sanger, posted on Thursday, September 28, 2017

Hadia AlmahliNearly two years ago, in October 2015, a group of visiting academics arrived in Oxford to take up positions at Christ Church, Merton College, and St John’s College. They had arrived in the UK as part of a scheme to provide refuge to academics fleeing war, persecution or discrimination, and these particular academics were escaping the civil war in Syria.

The scheme is coordinated by the Council for At Risk Academics (Cara), originally set up as the Academic Assistance Council (AAC) by William Beveridge in 1933, in response to the Nazi expulsion of many leading academics from German universities. Today, Cara states that its aims include working to ‘help at-risk academics facing discrimination, persecution, suffering and violence around the world, and to advance education by supporting academics and their educational institutions whose continuing work is at risk or compromised’.

This scheme is not only intended to provide refuge for academics, but also to help them return to their home countries. So far, 117 universities around the world have committed to support at-risk academics. Four Syrian academics have been given places at Oxford colleges, and Cara is currently supporting over 100 academics from the wider Middle East area. In Oxford, they have their university fees, accommodation, food and professional costs met. The academics are currently invited to stay for a maximum of 2 years –and the academic who has been based at Christ Church, Dr Hadia Almahli, has nearly reached the end of her time here.

When Hadia arrived at Christ Church, the Dean, the Very Reverend Professor Martyn Percy, said: ‘We took a decision several months ago that we would try and offer hospitality to academics at risk in the Middle East. Hadia was in Aleppo working at the university when she was forced to leave because of missiles and rockets raining down on the city’.

As her two years at Christ Church are nearly over, we thought we’d catch up with Hadia to find out about her experiences…

Hadia gained a Bachelor’s degree in Pharmaceutical Sciences at Aleppo University in Syria, before being selected by a French-Syrian fellowship programme to pursue her higher education in France, where she undertook a Masters in Medicinal Chemistry in the Faculty of Pharmacy at University of Paris XI. After staying on for her doctorate and gaining a PhD with Honours in Medicinal Chemistry, she carried out postdoctoral research at the Institute of Chemistry of Natural Substances (ICSN) in Gif-sur-Yvette, France.

Hadia began her academic career as an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Pharmacy at Aleppo University, before taking up the post of Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Pharmacy at the Egyptian University from September 2013 to October 2015, at which point she joined Christ Church as a Postdoctoral Fellow. She has five years’ experience in teaching, has had a number of papers published in peer-reviewed journals, and has participated in over 25 international conferences and symposiums in Chemistry, in Japan, Europe, the UK, the UAE, Egypt, and Syria. Her main research interests are medicinal and pharmaceutical chemistry, organic chemistry, and studies of the relationship between structure and biological activity: the structure-activity relationship (SAR).

During her time at Oxford, Hadia has worked with two groups in the Department of Chemistry, and is currently working on research into antibiotics. Whilst she’s been here she’s also had 4 papers published – 2 based on her work in Egypt, and 2 based on her first-year project – and another 2 will come out of the project that she is currently working on. One of the main benefits of being in Oxford for the past two years has been being able to take advantage not only of the exceptional facilities that the university provides to researchers and academics, but also to be able to catch up with and finish a lot of the work that she was forced to postpone when she left her life in Syria behind. The facilities here are very different to what was available to her before.

Hadia loves her work and the research that she has been doing here, neatly summed up by her statement, ‘I enjoy my chemistry, and I want to achieve’, and this ambition is clear in how hard she works. She spends long hours in the lab, sometimes not leaving until 11pm and working at weekends, because she loves the work she’s been doing. She’s had to work hard to catch up with all of the things she would have done in Syria, and she’s been aware of having to make the most of her two years in Oxford so that she can get ahead with some of the other research she’s wanted to undertake.

But there has been life for Hadia outside the lab, especially given the small, close-knit academic community of a college such as Christ Church. ‘Everyone has been so friendly,’ she said, and we spoke at length of the sense of community there is within a college, particularly in such international groups as the SCR. Members can eat together and spend time in the Senior Common Room, which Hadia often does, and she has a lot of people that she says she has made ‘beautiful friendships’ with during her time here. She said, ‘I was lucky to be surrounded with lovely people in Christ Church, I would thank all of them especially the Dean, the Very Reverend Professor Martyn Percy and Dr. Belinda Jack - they were generous with me with advice and supported me in every step’.

She’s been living in the very centre of college, with rooms in Tom Quad overlooking both the quad itself and St Aldate’s, and has loved the experience of being in college. When asked if she has any favourite places in the area that she’s been to whilst she’s been here, her answer is definite: ‘My favourite part of Oxford is Christ Church!’ She speaks of how fond she is of the British people, as well as the English countryside, which is obviously very different to what she has experienced before. During her time in the UK she’s also visited London, York, Reading and Leeds, and has enjoyed being able to see some other parts of the country, as well as London, a city that she loves almost as much as Oxford.

I asked if her family have been to visit since she came here, to which she replied, ‘No – it’s difficult to get visas with a Syrian passport.’ Her family stayed in Syria for four years after the start of the civil war, but have since separated, ending up in countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as in Europe. She hasn’t seen them in the two years since she came to England, but, she says, ‘we have Skype’.

As for the future – well that’s still hanging in the balance. She’s applied for another visa, which would allow her to stay in the UK for another 5 years, and the Department of Chemistry has also been assisting her both in her attempts to gain a visa extension, and to provide her with funding for further research, while Christ Church also supported her initial visa application. She would love to stay in the UK, especially in Oxford, but so far, she doesn’t have any firm plans for the future, and is in the process of applying for other positions.

It’s clear that Hadia has really enjoyed and made the most of her time in Oxford, making progress with her chemistry as well as becoming part of the SCR and enjoying all of the benefits of college life. For Hadia, this experience wouldn’t have been the same without Christ Church and how welcome everyone here has made her feel: ‘I’m so grateful to Christ Church for everything they’ve done for me, I love them and I just want to thank them’.

We wish Hadia the very best for the future – we’re sure she’ll go on to achieve remarkable things.