On bombings, torture, smugglers… and research

From Syria to Maastricht


Three refugees recently received a special NWO grant to carry out research at the UM. Two of them - a Syrian neuroscientist and a Palestinian pharmacologist - tell their stories. The third laureate, from Turkey, preferred not to be interviewed.

“We walked the whole night, holding hands, through a forest”

Former life. Before the Syrian war broke out in 2011, Mohamed Kassem (40) led a comfortable life in Aleppo, where he grew up and studied. Kassem had two jobs: he worked as a scientific advisor at a pharmaceutical company and as a neurosurgeon in his own private clinic. He had a beautiful house, in a nice neighbourhood, was happy with his wife and daughter, then three years old.

Nonetheless, Kassem hoped for a revolution, as it had raged in Tunisia. “Most educated Syrians longed for a democratic country, where human rights were respected. We went on the streets, demonstrating, but soon the police started shooting. From then on, we expressed our criticism on social media, under fake names.”

When he had completed his training as a neurosurgeon, Kassem was called up for military service. No way that he would join the army. So he fled to Sudan first, to a branch of his pharmaceutical company, and in 2012 to the Turkish border, where he worked for the Red Cross. “My wife and daughter fled to Egypt. It was complete chaos in Aleppo, everything was destroyed.”

Kassem worked as a coordinator for the Red Cross at the border from 2012 to 2014, responsible for eradicating infectious diseases all over Syria. “At that time, polio had spread all over the country. As a coordinator I could help my people and gained international experience with organisations such as UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders.”

In 2014, Assad’s secret service noticed that Kassem was sending money to his family in Aleppo every two months. Where was he hiding? “They took my brother and best friend to jail. My brother spent nine months there, my friend died from torture. In some way I feel guilty, but how could I know that sending money could cost lives?”

The flight. In 2015 Kassem got divorced and met his current wife, who fled by herself and worked for an international organisation as well. They decided that the border area wasn’t safe enough and chose to flee to the Netherlands because of its good reputation in the field of human rights and democracy. “With just a small bag we went on a dilapidated wooden boat with 46 people to Marmaris in Turkey. From there we walked the whole night, holding hands, through a forest. Next we sailed ten hours with a motor boat to a small island near Rhodes.”

On the way to Rhodes, the sea was very wild and people started vomiting. Kassem brought two medicines with him: anti-allergic pills and anti-vomiting tablets. Smiling: “By mistake I distributed the antihistamine, with vomiting as a side effect. Everyone kept throwing up.”

In the Netherlands. In Athens, Kassem and his wife met a smuggler who provided them with false IDs. Good counterfeits, because no one at the airport noticed. After arriving at Schiphol, they went to the police and then to the registration centre for refugees in Ter Apel. Afterwards an odyssey led them to Dronten, Budel, Arnhem, Wageningen and Venlo. “It took one year until we received a permit to stay. In July 2015, the COA (Centraal Orgaan Opvang Asielzoekers) had found a house in Maastricht.”

Learning Dutch was primal, so Kassem went to a school in Heerlen and from 2016 he registered at the UM Language Centre. “I wanted to work as a neurosurgeon, but that would take me seven years of extra education. How would I provide for my livelihood? Because I love research, I enrolled for the research master's of biomedical sciences, supported by social welfare. I’m in my second year now.”  

Professor Eline Kooij, coordinator of the master’s, tipped Kassem about the subsidy by research financier NWO. “I wrote a proposal and was invited to Utrecht for a 5-minute presentation and a 20-minute discussion. And it worked!”

Research. Kassem will finish his master in June and starts then with his research project. What is it about? Patients can develop a stroke, he explains, if the carotid artery is being narrowed by atherosclerosis. But what is the best treatment after a TIA or stroke? Normally, says Kassem, if the artery is closed for 70 percent or more, then surgery will be necessary. Otherwise the patient will usually get preventive medication.

“My project assumes that the risk for stroke is not only dependent on the degree of arterial narrowing but also on the features of the plaques, like microbleedings inside. My hypothesis is that MRI can detect these features and help selecting the patients for surgery. That is useful, because some patients may not benefit from surgery, while others with no indication do.”

Will he go back to Syria one day? “Only if the human rights and democracy are respected, but that won’t happen as long as Bashar Assad is in charge.”


“The second time, the boat sank and one woman died”

Former life. Musa Idris (31) wears a striking orange sweater. Is it a reference to the Dutch nationality, which he received in December? Yes, it was a gift from his wife, he says. Idris was a Palestinian living in Damascus. So when he arrived in the Netherlands, he couldn’t submit a passport and became stateless.

In Damascus Idris lived in the southern neighbourhood, which is called Yarmouk. “It started as a Palestinian refugee camp, but later brick houses were built as well. It was a lively place, where half a million people lived. When the war broke out, no bombs were targeted on Yarmouk, which became a safe haven people fled to. They lived in the mosques, in schools, everywhere.”

In 2011, Idris had just started with his master's of molecular biology (after finishing his bachelor's of pharmacology).  At the same time, he operated as a civil activist. “As a pharmacist I distributed medicine and instruments in Yarmouk, among doctors and patients who were in need.”

In 2012 the refugee camp was bombed and ‘transformed into a death camp’, as the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph put it. Idris was injured, but his injuries were not life-threatening. He lost the hearing in his right ear. Idris moved with his family to the inner circle of Damascus and finished his master's of molecular biology. He was still engaged in distributing medicine.

“Then, one day, the police arrested two of my friends, also activists. I got scared and decided to leave, even before finishing my master's. My friends were tortured to death.”

The flight. Idris headed to Lebanon and got a tourist visa to Turkey. “That only works if you are important, so I lied and said that I had a company and 50 thousand dollar in the bank. In Izmir I contacted smugglers to get to Greece. The first time, the police caught us and imprisoned us for one day. The second time, the boat sank and one woman died. The police saved the others. On the third attempt we arrived safely in Rhodes.”

With a Croatian ID, bought from smugglers, he boarded the plane to Amsterdam. Why Amsterdam? “It was the first flight that left. Frankfurt was scheduled for the following day, but I didn’t want to wait.”

In the Netherlands. Idris got his residence permit and put in a request to the COA for a house in a city with a medical faculty. But he ended up in Eindhoven (“you cannot refuse”). He met his wife in Eindhoven, she is also Palestinian. They married, had a son, and during the process of ‘inburgering’ (integration) Idris worked for Post NL.

“Then I applied for the master's of biomedical sciences in Maastricht. I only brought the bachelor's diploma from Syria, but that was enough for admission. I graduated in June 2018 and wanted to become a researcher. So the NWO subsidy came in handy. From February onwards, I’m a PhD student in Maastricht and in Rotterdam.”

Research. Idris is doing research on the relationship between the nervous system in the gut, the so-called second brain, and colon cancer. To study this relationship, a 3D model is needed, and that is what Idris will build.

And his future? He wants to make a career in science. “I want to become a professor.”

On bombings, torture, smugglers… and research
Musa Idris
Mohamed Kassem