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Finding Refuge in Academia: A Young Man’s Journey from War to the Lab Bench and Beyond

“Tragedy cannot be the
end of our lives.
We cannot allow it to

control and defeat us.
– Izzeldin Abuelaish”

The migrant crisis is a geopolitical event unlike any other in two generations. Hundreds of thousands of refugees mostly from Iraq and Syria have arrived on the shores of Europe and much can be done to help them – both indirectly through diplomacy and aid or directly through welcoming and integrating refugees. Whilst the ongoing crisis has garnered a spotlight on the collective plight of refugees, less is known about the personal narratives of those who made the demanding journey over land and sea. Perhaps if we got to know them a little better we would understand what this crisis means to our own humanity. Amidst the tragedies, could there be a glimmer of hope for a resolution? We think there is a story set so deep in all of this that it could perhaps be an inspiration for our times.

As a teenager, Aram fled his homeland and took an arduous journey spanning a whole continent – across Iran, Turkey, then Greece, Albania, onwards to Italy, France, Germany, Denmark, and finally Sweden. The journey took several years and multiple stops, traveling solely by foot and sometimes train. Sound familiar? These days it’s a recognizable story heard in the news – hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and other war-torn regions are desperately trying to make it to Europe to find a peaceful life.

But the story of Aram Ghalali is not one you’ll find in the newspapers today. Though he took the same path, Aram arrived in Sweden in 1998 when he was 15 years old. His family fled their home in Kurdistan, Iraq after their father and a number of other relatives were killed and their house confiscated. Was it easier to arrive as a refugee in Europe then? “No, I think it is easier now. There were clear borders between the countries then. So it was difficult”, explains Aram as we chat at Jöns Jakob on a cloudy February afternoon. Today he is 33 years old and holds a PhD degree from Karolinska Institutet, where he now works as a cancer researcher at the Institute of Environmental Medicine. Although we often hear the beginning of these kind of narratives, we rarely hear the outcomes and stories of successful adaptation.

Although we often hear
the beginning of these
kind of narratives,
rarely hear the
and stories
of successful adaptation.

Aram’s story is one of overcoming great difficulties and setbacks, but persevering despite them. A major life goal was to study science and become a medical doctor, and since arriving in Sweden Aram tirelessly worked towards that goal.  It was not without obstacles. At first, he did not speak Swedish nor have proof of previous studies and grades. “When I wanted to study science, the teachers told me this is impossible, because only absolutely the top students in Sweden go into science”, explains Aram. The other immigrant students around him were sent to trade schools, to become mechanics and electricians. But Aram was stubborn and managed to convince his high school’s guidance counselor to give him a chance to go into the science track. He was given one month to listen in on math and physics classes and take a qualifying exam. Aram passed with flying colors. This crucial moment started his path to a career in science.

Aram at Campus

Once again, the road was not easy, but Aram’s hard work and determination led him toward his goals. “I wanted to be a doctor. At this time I did not have any papers, no citizenship from any country. In my Swedish residence permit it said my identity could not be confirmed be – cause I came with no papers.” Aram got accepted to King’s College in the UK but due to lack of papers he was not able to get a UK visa. Instead, he went to Mälardalen University College in Eskilstuna and obtained an impressive total of 5 different degrees in science and engineering.

All the while, Aram’s goal was to study at Karolinska Institutet. He describes visiting KI for medical school interviews, “I saw the roads on campus, called Nobel road and Berzelius road… It was sort of a holy land. I got the feeling of some sort of spirit of KI and I thought one day I need to study here, I mean I HAVE to study here.” Finally, he found himself at KI for a Master thesis research project, which eventually led to a PhD position in cell biology. These days Aram’s research focuses on environmental factors influencing different types of cancer, asthma and inflammation.

“For me, science is not something that you own”, explains Aram . He draws inspiration from issues facing his community, such as the high incidence of certain types of cancer in Aram’s hometown in Iraq, due to the use of chemical weapons. “I think the knowledge I learned here at KI is something I should somehow give back to society and humanity.”

“I saw the roads on
campus, called Nobel
road and Berzelius
road… It was sort of a
holy land”

Between 1987-1988, vast areas of Iraq were subjected to repeated attacks of chemical weapons. The town of Halabja, close to Aram’s hometown, was attacked with a mixture of both blistering sulphur mustard and organophosphorus nerve gases which killed and injured thousands of civilians. Aram explains, “Most farmers have now returned to their previously poisoned farms and villages. Physicians and oncologists in this region are alarmed that the cancer risks in this population are very high. They observe that very young individuals die of large, aggressive, rapidly metastasizing tumors.” Clearly there is a need to scientifically determine the danger to the population living in the affected region. “I plan to analyze soil samples from exposed areas for chemical weapons and to identify toxicological effects of compounds remaining in the soil. I hope that the results can be used for cleaning up, and for deterring political leaders from using these gases.”

Aram at the lab

Aram’s passion for human rights does not end with science. He also founded a non-profit organization called War in my playground, which has members in several countries. The organization’s goal is to provide children affected by the current conflicts in Iraq and Syria with necessities to increase their educational opportunities. The organization delivers teaching materials such as books, pencils and notebooks, as well as toys to bring some joy to kids living in refugee camps. “We believe that a happy childhood is a universal right”, explains Aram.

An overarching theme emerges out of our conversation with Aram – his awareness of a specific type of mindset to overcome obstacles: “I think it’s all about your mentality, your way of thinking.” Aram argues against determinism, the perception that our intelligence or attitude are something we are born with and are unchangeable. “There are some who have a welcoming attitude towards challenges, persevering when they encounter setbacks and see criticism as a chance to learn more. They do not have the same view of intelligence, but consider it something that is developed by hard work and new skills.” His philosophy about life reflects the psychological quality of resilience, the ability to adapt in the face of adversity, as well as personal responsibility.

However, Aram is also quick to point out that circumstances are important as well. He credits his success to people along the way who have helped him out, such as his high school guidance counselor as well as his PhD advisor at KI, both of whom gave him a chance to continue his scientific quest. When asked what he hopes for other immigrants coming to Sweden today, Aram answers: “The welcome that I got. I could flourish in this system, and I hope they get it as well.”

Aram’s passion for
human rights does not
end with science.

How difficult is it for a newly arrived immigrant or perhaps a refugee, in a similar situation as Aram, to continue on to higher education? On the one hand, universities want to attract international students and staff, as this bolsters their reputation. Maria Olsson, Senior Officer and Program Manager at the KI International Relations Office told us, “every year several hundred exchange students study at Karolinska Institutet and one-third of the students come from other countries. These students bring fresh perspectives and help to create an internationally oriented workplace and study. By attracting internationally competitive employees, students and partners strengthen and improve the exchange of knowledge, which in turn further increases the quality of the operations.”

“I think the knowledge I
learned here at KI is
something I should
somehow give back to
society and humanity.
– Aram Ghalali”

One issue is the problem of accreditation that newly arriving students face. We asked Maria Olsson whether any programs exist to help immigrants, including refugees, who may be highly qualified but do not have the proper papers or accreditation when they apply. “No, unfortunately not,” she replied. However, “KI is the national coordinator for a fast track to get immigrants into our professions. That is, for those who already have a medical degree (from another country)”. Unfortunately, the situation still stands that many highly educated immigrants who arrive in Sweden will spend a lot of time and effort requalifying for higher education and relicensing their degrees – if they ever manage to do so. According to a report by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 86% of Syrian refugees reaching EU shores in 2015 had completed secondary school, and half of those were University educated.

“I think it’s all about your
mentality, your way of

In light of this situation, Swedish regulators are stepping up efforts to recognize the academic merit of refugees and expedite their return to work. Migrationsverket, for example, has reallocated resources to the burgeoning asylum applications. Regular applications have been halted or delayed and effort is being made to match incoming refugees to vocations that are best suited for their interests and educational level. The European Union, since the beginning of 2015, has launched the EU Science4Refugees initiative. The initiative is aimed at “helping refugee scientists and researchers find suitable jobs that both improve their own situation and put their skills and experience to good use in Europe’s research system.” Such initiatives would be welcomed by refugee scientists and academics who would benefit from getting work and being recognized by society.

History is dotted with luminary examples of refugees who have gone on to excel in their chosen vocations and become world leaders. The former American secretary of state Madeleine Albright and her family were refugees that fled the war in Czechoslovakia to the United States. Enrico Fermi the “architect of the nuclear age” was an Italian theoretical and experimental physicist who fled fascist Italy to join the American War effort against the Nazis.

Now we have heard the trials and tribulations of one Iraqi academic war refugee who has come through to realise his dream of pursuing scientific research. Through pure grit and determination every obstacle Aram faced became a stepping stone toward his dream of higher education and research. But he couldn’t have done it alone, a welcoming and supportive society was just as important for his successful integration. If we were to take a leaf from Aram’s story it should be the one that pertains to his mindset. The mindset to adapt to change and overcome challenges.

How we act as students,
researchers and doctors
will set an example for
the society at large

We live in times marked by cultural, economic and technological shifts. Many challenges we face as a society stem from these shifts and upheavals. One way to adapt is to discard the belief that our personality is immutable and adapt to meet the challenges that we are posed. How we act as students, researchers and doctors will set an example for the society at large and how society responds to the migrant crisis will be judged by historians for decades to come. By refining our attitudes to the migrant crisis we could redefine the outcome for Europe and the hundreds of thousands of refugees. How do we strengthen Europe – so that it continues to be a sanctuary of peace for the hundreds of millions who reside here? The answer probably lies in the courage at the heart of the individual citizen. Perhaps if we find the courage to give them a home they will, as did Aram, gift us a dream. •

Written by: Iskra Pollak Dorocic & Parvin Kumar • Photography by: Simon Guérard
This article was previously published in: Medicor 2016 #2


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