Refugee studies Syrian war at Utrecht University: ‘Ali is an eye witness too’

Researchers Ugur Üngör and Ali al Jasim, photo DUB

In the coffee corner at Drift 6, historians Ugur Üngör and Ali al Jasim (30) are working hard on organising a conference about their research project. Papers are spread out on the table, laptops are open. Ali is still on the phone while Üngör explains he’s just returned from abroad. In the meantime, students and employees walk in and out to grab a cup of coffee.

Like so many other Syrians, Ali al Jasim fled from the violence in his home country. “I was studying English literature at the university of Aleppo. Because I spoke English, I came into contact with students from western countries who wanted to learn Arabic. Then, because I had those contacts, I had to report to the office of Assad’s political security intelligence at the university, and tell them what I’d discussed. It was truly a Big Brother is Watching You situation.”

When the conflict started in 2011, he got involved with peaceful protests. He also worked for Doctors Without Borders. The students’ peaceful protests were violently struck down by the regime. “As far as I’m aware, this was the biggest student protest in all of history. Bigger than Prague in 1968, or the Tiananmen Square in 1989. It was also the only time, ever, that a university was bombed from the sky by its own country,” Üngör adds.

Eventually, Al Jasim came to the Netherlands in September 2015, where he was granted asylum. In those days, Üngör helped many Syrian students and researchers on their way in the Netherlands with requesting grants. When, in 2017, he heard that for the first time, a Syrian student would participate in Conflict Studies, he set out to find this student. That’s how he met Al Jasim, in whom – as an eye witness – he instantly saw a perfect research partner.

Preventing tinted images
Al Jasim explains that Assad paints a picture of a civil war while the students’ protests were always peaceful. “Ali is an eye witness and a researcher. He and the other Syrian eye witnesses are kind of like Lou de Jong (historian who established research institute NIOD and collected all the source material for scientific research on WW II, ed.). The duo says it’s incredibly important that the stories of Syrians, of whom many live in the Netherlands, are written down. “The only survivor of a mass slaughter, for instance, lives here in Utrecht. The bullet only grazed his lung, and he crawled out of a mass grave in which more than 80 people died,” Üngör says.

The two created a plan together to conduct research on how people from Syria experienced the large-scale violence. The project, in which Syrians’ stories are recorded, is now housed at Utrecht University and the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (NIOD). “The goal is to establish an academic point of view aside from all the journalist stories about the Syrian conflict,” Üngör explains. This is important, he says, for example because the Assad regime is still in place and is actively working on creating a much-tinted image of the story behind the protests. “We want the academic story, not the ideological story,” Al Jasim adds.

A blessing
When the option for a stipend for refugee academics came into being at research financer NWO, the duo’s research proposal was already nearly finished. “This chance for a special grant was a true blessing for us,” Üngör says. Precisely because he was already working on the Syrian Oral History Project with an NWO Vidi grant. Ali’s research, as an extension of his Master’s thesis for Conflict Studies, is a part of this large project.

The grant request was accepted, so the two are now working hard on their research project. “The conflict started in 2011, and we received our grant in 2018, so that’s a little late,” Üngör says. Ali adds that there’s been another issue since the start. Üngör’s Vidi grant ends this August, which means that Ali’s research also has to be done by then. With a publication in a scientific journal and a chapter in a book, Ali is working on his CV. “This is really a step up towards a PhD track, although that does require financing of course. I would love to continue in science; now, I’m getting the opportunity to strengthen my academic competences.”

The duo’s collaboration is going remarkably well. “I can always call Ugur Üngör or ask him for advice.” Üngör in turn feels it’s important that Ali remains critical of what they’re doing. That’s something Ali had to get used to at first, because being critical of your professors in Syria was a crime – and giving one a direct compliment is seen as an insult in his home country. Üngör is happy he’s got Ali as co-researcher on his side, because he’d been alone in his work on the Oral History Project since its conception in 2011.

The two are currently organising a conference to share their knowledge. “Without this grant, we still would’ve done the research, but then perhaps Ali couldn’t have been a part of it. The research is too important for several scientific disciplines to ignore. The world needs to know about this,” says Üngör.

Refugees in science
The research of the four refugee researchers in Utrecht was made possible thanks to 750,000 euros of research funds reserved by NWO for a dozen projects. NWO developed the pilot ‘Refugees in Science’ specifically for refugee academics who wish to continue their scientific careers. Of the 48 applications, 12 were accepted; four of these are from Utrecht. DUB will talk to two of these. The research proposals written by Ali and Safaa had to connect to an existing NWO project. NWO says the project is successful and will be continued. The grant for a period of 1.5 years will now be called Hestia – Impulse for Refugees in Science. The refugees who received grants this year are not allowed to apply for a Hestia grant again.