Kassem AlSayed Mahmoud, a scholar of food science and agricultural engineering, has witnessed the atrocities occurring in his home country of Syria as an academic and later as a soldier forced into the armed forces. We are fortunate to have been able to assist Kassem in his journey to safety that led him to the Ghent University, in Belgium, and to share his story with our network.
What motivated you to study food science and agriculture?
I studied agricultural engineering from 1992 to 1997 and I obtained a diploma in Agricultural Engineering, with a focus in Food Science. The choice of food science was not my goal in itself, but the goal was to excel in a new field, as this department opened a year prior to my selection. In addition, [food science] is one of the most interesting domains and touches everyone—families and all of society—every day. We must all know the basics of this science to get healthy and delicious food for us and for our children.
From Syria, you went on to study in France. How did that come about?
Studying for my Masters and then Doctorate in France was one of the most beautiful stages of my life and the most difficult at the same time. Among the many challenges I faced, the first was to learn the French language, which I never dreamed in my life I would speak. So I followed an intensive course in the city of Aleppo for 9 months in 2000 because the city of Deir Ezzor and all the eastern region of Syria were generally deprived of a University until 2006, the year that Alfurat University opened.
Another challenge in France was the cultural and social change—moving from a simple unstructured environment, with corruption, bribery and a dictatorship, to a country of freedom, human rights and that is also an important center of Western civilization. The most important challenge that I faced in France was self-assertion and the determination to get my PhD in Food Processing and Biotechnology.
I arrived in France on September 11th 2001, the dark day that history and humanity will never forget. The days passed quickly and so beautifully during those years of study. I loved the life pattern of organization and services available for citizens, the comfort, and especially the social and health security systems in France. Bribery, corruption and nepotism, intimidation and the security branches, all of these are forgotten in France after what I lived with since my childhood in Syria.
Democracy, freedom of expression and respect for human rights, all of these were missing in Syria and found in France and Europe. I learned much about the latest instruments and technologies and I published many scientific works and participated in conferences. I also formed very good professional relationships and met friends who I still see and contact. I received my PhD on November 11, 2007 and then worked as a researcher at the same laboratory in Nancy, France, until 2009.
What happened to you when you returned to Syria?
When I came back to Syria, I spent nearly a year finishing procedures and settling my status at the university where I faced problems of bureaucracy, corruption and nepotism at the university. The lack of materials and equipment for education and scientific research was not all because of a lack of money, but also because of corruption, theft and mismanagement.
Though I struggled to provide the latest scientific technologies for research, I was able to create a laboratory specialized in the field of edible oils. The most serious problem confronting me since my return to Syria was the pursuit of the security branches of the Assad regime and the police who were determined to force me to attend the mandatory [military] service. After more than a year of persecution I was forced into the army, at 38 years old.
I joined the military service at the end of 2010. I was supposed to spend just one year and then go back to civilian life and work at the university, but after the revolution against the Assad regime, orders were given to not lay off any military personnel for an indeterminate period, until the completion of the revolution. I waited until July 2012, but after seeing the practices of the regime against the unarmed and innocent, after being retained for no reason, and after they asked me to carry weapons to kill innocent people, I decided to defect from the army and get out of the country. Staying meant either to kill innocent people or be killed by the regime. The regime killed my brother in the massacre of Jura and Kussour at the city of Deir Ezzor. He was a civilian and married with three children in September 2012. More than 400 people were killed that day, including women, children and old men.
In October 2012, I left Syria to Turkey with the help of the rebels. There, I got a visa to Qatar where I stayed for more than a year.
What can you now say about higher education in Syria?
Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime forced the younger generation to join the army and deployed all of society to stop the revolution. Higher education suffered so much in this regard—the regime forced the young scientific and professional staff in universities to enroll in the army, refuse the revolution and stand with the regime. All this has led to the deterioration of the educational process in the universities because of the lack of scientific staff who had been killed, arrested, or migrated.
The regime has also bombed the universities in the liberated areas. The groups supporting the regime, thieves and army soldiers stole materials from some universities or left them open for theft by gangs. Currently, university staff suffer from a severe shortage in number and qualifications because of the regime’s practices. Nor does it resemble the past educational system in Syria—it is now the worst education system in the world. The regime is now forcing teachers to give high marks to some students.
Students were the worst hit—they were killed, arrested tortured and displaced. Hundreds of thousands of them are trying to complete their studies. The security situation and the lack of scientific material forced many students to emigrate to Western countries. Once resettled in a new country, we’re faced with learning a new language and certification and diploma recognition. But it is worse for those still in badly hit areas. There, life can feel like prison without basic necessities—food, potable water, safety and security—the basic life necessities.
Through continuous communications with my friends, colleagues and students in Syria, I receive many calls of distress and discontent. The majority of them are looking for a chance—anyway they can—to get out of the country and to find a safe place for themselves and their families. They hope to find something abroad—a stable place for them and their children. If you see that your children have nothing to eat, or have no education system, you have to secure their future.
How did you learn about Scholars at Risk?
I knew about SAR through a friend. This organization gave me back my self-confidence at a time when I thought that the world had failed to help us. Through my contact, I found in them spirit, humanitarian assistance and respect. I came from a stricken country without the minimum necessities of life. In the war, the only losers are the Syrian people.
You will soon travel to Ghent University in Belgium. What are you most excited about?
The opportunity to work in Belgium gave me hope to return to my career, to find myself and search for a job—to live and create a family in a safe country which respects humanity. After they told me that I have been admitted to work at the Ghent University in Belgium, I was so grateful. The university has a very good reputation.
Will you return to Syria?
Only those who lose their heart and sense of humanity forget their homeland and place of birth. I dream everyday of returning to my homeland, a Syria free of Assad and his dictatorial regime; a democratic homeland; a homeland that respects human rights, regardless of race, religion and doctrine; a homeland free of corruption, bribery, nepotism and the continuous terrorism of the regime and its branches; a homeland that respects minds and thinkers, and seeks to develop and progress in all scientific, economic, social and cultural aspects, a homeland where human beings can relax and find the basic necessities of life and services like what is available in developed countries. Syria! . . . We will come back!
The SAR Spotlight is a monthly series highlighting SAR scholars, partners, and network activities.