09 March 2023

Spotlight on De

Scientist working in a lab with a pippet

In solidarity with UEA’s Refugee Week, we shone the spotlight onto De, UEA’s first ever University of Sanctuary scholar. He detailed his journey from Syria, his dreams of studying a PhD in the UK, and his hopes for the future.

UEA Refugee Week 2023, taking place from Friday 3 to 10 March, offers the UEA community a chance to celebrate being a University of Sanctuary (UoS) and to consider further how we can all work together to create a welcoming culture of inclusivity and awareness. In solidarity with this week, we invited De (whose name has been anonymised for safety reasons) to share his own story.

De’s story begins in one of the oldest cities in the world: Aleppo, a city in the north of Syria with a rich history of multiculturalism and diverse religious groups.

A city where today people are battling against the odds to survive in the face of civil war, and access to clean water and power.

This situation became very real for De in 2013, when heavy shelling hit the area and his pharmacy was the only place where people could seek help for the injured. He helped the wounded and provided as much medical care as he could, but there were no other medical services available, His pharmacy did not last much longer before it too was reduced to rubble. 

Though he refused to give up trying, De felt helpless and wanted to do more, turning his attention towards research – another pathway he could pursue to help his country.

New opportunities

De left Aleppo at a time when huge parts of the city were destroyed due to the civil war, to live in the UK under refugee status . Those first few months as he watched from a distance, as diseases like leishmania and malaria, cancer, heart disease and conflict-related injuries spread in Syria, made him keen to know more about the cellular and molecular aspects of diseases.

He also started learning English – first by self-teaching, then by attending free lessons he found through New Routes, a charity that supports refugees, asylum seekers and isolated migrants, and promotes cross-cultural integration and community awareness. It was through this charity that De was referred to INTO UEA, an on-campus partner of the University that offers English language programmes to international students. Funded by UEA’s University of Sanctuary initiative, this opportunity gave De the chance to improve his academic English.

Displaying an inexhaustible passion to learn, he passed his English language exam, and was invited to complete a master’s degree through UEA’s Sanctuary Scholarship programme in 2018. It was here that De became the University’s first ever UoS scholar!

De said: “When I was in Syria, it was my dream to do a PhD in the UK – only one in 100 students in Syria get to achieve a PhD. Without UEA and without University of Sanctuary, this dream would not have happened; Norwich is a safe city with nice people who make you feel at home, and I wouldn’t be here today without the scholarship and without UEA’s support.”  

PhD studies

De completed his master’s with distinction in 2019, with his final project attempting to investigate the role of autophagy (cell self-digestion) in cancer progression, before embarking on his journey to achieve a PhD in Pharmacology.

While working on his PhD, which was funded by UoS, De’s PhD focused in on: “Investigating the Expression and Function of Purinergic Receptors in Mouse Artery and Associate Ganglia”. The potential future applications of this knowledge held implications for the future treatment of high blood pressure.

De also utilised the molecular experience he had gained during this time to help the NHS team perform thousands of COVID-19 tests daily. He remained passionate about helping during this time despite working long shifts at the hospital, often heading straight to the research laboratory after to finish his PhD experiments and thesis. 

Despite all the difficulties he faced, his determination and hardworking attitude meant he was able to achieve the aims of his PhD project as planned at the beginning of the project.

Support and solidarity

When De initially arrived in Norwich with refugee status, he received support from two property owners after connecting through a charity. In 2022, eight years after seeking refuge in the UK himself, De opened up his own home to a Ukrainian mother and her daughter fleeing the conflict in Ukraine – personifying the welcoming nature of the University of Sanctuary initiative. 

De affirmed: “I’m very glad to have done it. It is a wonderful feeling when you can change people’s lives and keep them safe. I would advise anyone to do the same.

"The problems I had faced made things simpler, as I had an experience not dissimilar to what they had been through. Housing is such a big issue in the UK, and I received such kindness when I first moved to Norwich that I wanted to give something back.”

What’s next for De?

Having completed his PhD studies at the end of 2022, DE now intends to remain in the world of academia and either progress into lecturing or a position in Clinical Pharmacy.  

“I love teaching,” he said, “and would prefer to stay at UEA for two reasons: to thank UEA and to get more experience at one of the top ten pharmacy schools in the UK.

“I am always asked about when I finish my PhD, whether I will be going home to Aleppo or staying in the UK. My answer is that I feel I belong to two countries now, both the UK and Syria. I am hoping to be a productive part of the UK community, and wish to take my knowledge and education to Syria to improve research and the higher educational and health system.

“I’m proud of myself. I never usually feel that way, but I’ve come from nothing to being a PhD holder – and now I just want to give something back.”