Science - March 22, 2012

‘They think my knowledge undermines the system'

He saw soldiers mistreating a woman and intervened. Since then, Iranian researcher Farzeen has been a political refugee. The university of Wageningen offered him a temporary base but his future is uncertain. ‘If I don't manage to get a PhD place... well, then I don't know what to do.'

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No photos and don't use people's real names... the conditions on which Farzeen was prepared to be interviewed suggested a nervous person, but the Iranian researcher turned out to be extremely relaxed and friendly. ‘Those were precautions', he explained. More to protect his family in Iran than himself. Farzeen is one of the 21 refugee academics now at Dutch universities through the Scholars at Risk programme (SAR, see box).
Why did you flee?
‘I was already studying in the Netherlands and had returned to Iran to do field work for my thesis. One day, after a long day in the laboratory, I saw an old woman being attacked on the street by two soldiers. They were beating her with sticks. It was a reflex to get between them. ‘What on earth are you doing?' I shouted, ‘This is not normal!' The woman jumped into a taxi and disappeared, so I had achieved my goal. But the soldiers took photos of me.
When I got back to the Netherlands I heard that I was on the ‘blacklist'. That means you run a high risk of being arrested as you go through the Iranian customs. After that they could do whatever they liked with me. I certainly wouldn't be able to get out of the country again, because they take away your passport. That is why I stayed in the Netherlands. I have not applied for asylum for fear of not getting refugee status. My case may not be high-risk enough to qualify.'
How do you know you are being watched?
‘My father once got a phone call from someone in the government. "We know what your son is up to", the person said. Beyond that, you hear a lot of information on the grapevine, but nothing official. I once had an anonymous call myself, saying, "Look out, we are watching you." Not nice.'
Are you still in contact with your family?
‘I can call my parents on the internet, but we can't speak freely. In Iran you can only access the internet through government channels. It is not an independent medium like it is here. So if I talk to my parents we only discuss everyday matters. We do use a lot of similes and metaphors, so as to communicate something without actually saying it.'

Is it tough not to have close contact with them?
‘Of course it is, but at least I am safe, and I don't want to put them in danger in any way. What really hurts is that my brother is getting married soon and I can't be there.'
You don't come across as a big rebel. Why does the regime keep you under surveillance, then?
‘The regime is very sensitive about people living outside Iran. We come into contact with other customs and we learn to think for ourselves. You could see the regime as a big umbrella: if you are not standing right underneath it, they see you as opposition.'
As a scientist, are you particularly suspect?
‘I could use my research to improve conditions for farmers in Iran. I could save them time, water and money. I have developed a material to do this with at a European company and I would love to introduce it in Iran. But they would rather import the material from China, because they are keen to do business there. And they can make more money that way. My knowledge undermines the system, they reckon. That could also be the reason why I am on the blacklist.'
What differences have struck you since coming to live in the Netherlands?
‘That you can insult the queen if you want to without anything happening to you. Some things make me laugh here, like the time the Atlas building was cleared because of a suspicious package. Everyone in a panic, the media present - and all for nothing. In Iran people were killed just for going out in the streets and saying "where is my vote?". Scientists have been attacked and killed. A simple package would not cause such upheaval there.'
What are your plans in the Netherlands?
‘My SAR grant is for one year. I am using that time to write a PhD proposal and be able to stay longer term. If I manage that then I can stay here, because after five years I can apply for a residence permit. If I don't manage to get a PhD place... well, I don't know what I will do. That is why I am working like a robot now in the hope of getting a place.'
How do you see your future?
‘I will go on supporting my country. I can do that by helping Iranian companies and farmers. It is not so easy to do it from a distance, but there are data like satellite photos and GIS maps available, so I can work with those. Eventually I hope to go back but that is impossible as long as this regime is in power. My dearest wish is that the leaders will change their attitude.'
The academic's name has been changed at his request.
Scholars at Risk
Since 2009, scientists who are no longer safe in their home countries have been coming to the Netherlands through the Scholars at Risk (SAR) programme in collaboration with the Dutch foundation for refugee students, UAF. There are already 21 scholars at various universities through this programme.
Assistance from SAR entails either assistance in getting a position at a university, or a grant for one year, half of which is paid for by the university. The year can be used to submit a PhD proposal or to apply for research funding or an academic job. The scientists do not then need to apply for asylum, they can carry on working and their careers do not come to a standstill.
There are currently 12 Iranian academics in the Netherlands through SAR. ‘The situation there is very difficult at present, and there is no question of their going back for the time being', says Berend Jonker, who works for SAR. There are particular criteria for obtaining assistance from SAR. ‘You have to have complete a Master's at least, and it is important that you have something to offer a university', explains Jonker. As to whether people eventually return to their countries, that is a matter of personal choice. Jonker: ‘But if they do, they will still go on benefitting from their good contacts in the Netherlands.'
SAR would very much like to place more researchers with Wageningen UR. ‘We often have people who would fit in well here, given Wageningen's international profile', says Jonker.

Forbidden science monologues
Academics who are kept under surveillance in their own countries tend to have interesting stories to tell. A number of these stories have been dramatized in The Forbidden Science Monologues, which is touring the Netherlands this month. The theatre company will be at the Aula in Wageningen on 26 March, when Manoushka Zeegelaar performs an Iranian story and Roger Goudsmit an Iraqi one. The show will be followed by a discussion with television presenter Jan Douwe Kroeske and labour MP Jeroen Dijsselbloem.

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