By Edward Fox
Academic recognition can be hard to come by, especially for students from countries in the midst of civil war. But four Libyan scholars, two in Canada and two in the United States, have recently received plaudits for both their academic work and their social conscience.
The Canadian Bureau for International Education, which gave the awards, helps students from around the world study at universities in Canada and the United States, and has a specific program for Libyan students that it runs in collaboration with the Libyan Ministry of Higher Education and North American universities. (Under an executive order issued Friday by U.S. President Donald Trump, all those with passports from Libya and six other Arab countries will be blocked from entering the United States for at least 90 days. Under a possible softening of that order, announced on Sunday, permanent U.S. residents with “green cards” might be allowed back into the country if they leave, even if they are from the seven banned countries.)
The two medical students and two engineers who received the Libyan Student Excellence Awards in November 2016 were recognized both for their academic work and their active commitment to their fellow Libyans. All of them said they would be keen to return to Libya if circumstances allowed, and all lamented the prevailing state of lawlessness in the country. Al-Fanar Media talked to them about their lives and their work.
Mohamed El Badawe: Aspiring Electrical Engineer
Mohamed El Badawe is a Ph.D. candidate in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. He is working on metamaterials, part of the cutting-edge field of nanotechnology.
A metamaterial is an artificial, composite material that has properties not found in nature. It is engineered to have a molecular structure that enables it to manipulate electromagnetic waves in new ways. (The field of metamaterials attracted public attention in 2006 when one of its founders, the British physicist Sir John Pendry, announced that a metamaterial could bend light waves around an object, making it invisible. In response, Pendry was credited with inventing a Harry Potter-style “invisibility cloak.”)
El Badawe has been working on the development of a metasurface antenna, an application that uses a custom-made metamaterial to collect electromagnetic signals. The invention is comparable to a solar panel, but it generates electrical power from ambient electromagnetic waves rather than from sunlight. And unlike a solar panel, the metasurface antenna can capture energy around the clock, rather than having to wait until the sun is shining. El Badawe says it could be used to power small devices without the need to connect to a national electrical grid.
Mohamed El Badawe was born in 1985 and grew up in al-Zahraa’, a small town about 30 miles west of the Libyan capital, Tripoli. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronic engineering from the University of Tripoli in 2007, and began additional study after receiving a scholarship from the Libyan Ministry of Higher Education.
He wanted to work on a project that would benefit Libyan society. To him that meant developing ways to replace fossil fuels as the country’s main natural resource. “The objective,” he says, “is to prepare the coming generation of Libyans for an era of new energy sources. We want Libya to be independent of fossil fuels.”
El Badawe came to Canada in 2010. At Memorial University of Newfoundland, he wrote a thesis on the advantages of renewable energy systems, and obtained his master’s degree in 2012. The following year, he joined the University of Waterloo and started his doctoral studies.
The CBIE award also recognized El Badawe’s social engagement, which includes working with Syrian refugees and organizing activities for Syrian refugee children in Waterloo.
“If the situation in Libya were to improve,” he says, “I would go tomorrow.”
Anas Gremida: Aspiring Medical Specialist
Anas Gremida was born in 1983 and grew up in a village in Libya called Abu ‘Isa, about 30 miles west of Tripoli. He received his primary and secondary education in local public schools, and after passing high school exams with good grades attended the Medical College of the University of Zawiya, a public university not far from his home.
Gremida is now a fellow in gastroenterology and hepatology at the University of New Mexico in the United States. He attributes the success he has achieved in his medical career to the education he received in Libya, and to the support of his parents. His mother, a teacher, was the Libyan equivalent of a “tiger mom,” he says, pushing him to work and succeed academically. His father, a lawyer, encouraged him to read books and broaden his intellectual horizons. He also gives credit to a series of professional mentors.
The first of these, a professor at medical school in Libya, advised him to develop his career by applying to study and get clinical experience abroad. “At this time in Libya,” Gremida said, “the top three graduates from medical school would be given scholarships for training abroad. You could go wherever you wanted.”
He chose to go to the United States, and joined St. Louis University School of Medicine in Missouri. There he decided to specialize in internal medicine.
Education in Libya in the Qadhafi era was “not the best, but it was not the worst,” he said. “At medical school in Libya I was surprised to find that Libyans did better than students from Egypt and Tunisia.”
Gremida has maintained a connection with public health in Libya. Before the 2011 revolution, the country had a functioning public-health system, he says. Now it is in crisis, with widespread lawlessness disrupting normal life, and corruption undermining institutions.
“Now if you go to the primary-care center in Abu ‘Isa, they ask you to go to the pharmacy across the street and buy a syringe so the doctor can treat you,” he said.
Gremida wants to go back to help rebuild this system, possibly to work in internal medicine. With this aim in view, he is taking an online master’s degree course in public health.
Awatef Ben Ramadan: Doctor Concerned About Libya’s Future
Awatef Ben Ramadan qualified as a medical doctor in Libya. She is now completing a Ph.D. in health informatics at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri.
She was born, raised and educated in Tripoli, and graduated from the faculty of medicine at the University of Tripoli in 1996.
After qualifying as a doctor, she interned in hospitals and clinics in the Libyan health-care system. After her internship she worked for three years at a community health center in Tripoli, in collaboration with the family and community-medicine department, as a general practitioner, and shared in the supervision of a vaccination program for young children and schoolchildren. The experience gave her an enduring professional interest in public health.
“We tried sincerely to make people’s health better,” she said of the public health system in Libya before the 2011 revolution. “Now people are working under stressful conditions, with shortages of equipment, and not enough resources.”
After her stint in general medicine, she worked for five years as a lecturer and research assistant in community medicine, supervising research by young doctors and lecturing medical students. By the time she left Libya for the United States in 2011, she was a specialist in medical data analysis.
This kind of data analysis—health informatics—“uses the power of information to get the best solutions for public health,” she says. “It’s a source for scientifically evidenced solutions that can change public health.”
She has worked since 2014 as a research assistant at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, while working toward her Ph.D.
“The war and its psychological effects on people are a clear public health issue,” she says. Dealing with this is essential for the life of Libya as it moves on from the present instability. “Building a country depends on human resources above all. We are rich in Libya because of our human resources.”
Mohamed Zidan: A Second-Generation Engineer
Born in 1995, Mohamed Zidan is the youngest of the four Libyans recognized by CBIE, and also the one most directly affected by the 2011 civil war.
In February of that year, when the Libyan uprising began, he was attending high school in Tripoli, and was in his second-to-last year. By that time, he had already chosen engineering as a career path. His father is an aerospace engineer who worked for Libyan national airlines.
“When the revolution started, I continued going to school because Tripoli wasn’t completely disrupted,” he said. As a member of the generation of young Arabs that is heavily involved in online social media, he made his contribution to the uprising by posting pictures of anti-Qadhafi demonstrations. (He avoided government censorship by using a proxy, a new practice at the time.)
By June, though, the situation had become too dangerous. Zidan’s father decided to take his family to their farm, in the countryside south of Tripoli, to be as far as possible from the fighting.
Zidan spent the next five months on the family farm, in a little oasis village in the desert. It was a place he knew from previous visits; he was surrounded by sheep and chickens, grapes and olive trees. From there, he and his family followed developments in the war.
Qadhafi was killed in October 2011; a few months later, the Ministry of Education announced that a new school year would begin in January 2012, compressed into six months. Zidan took his final high school exams at that point, and got the required grades for university entry. He spent one semester at Tripoli University before moving to Canada.
During his first three months in Canada, Zidan took an intensive English course, and he then accepted an offer from Carleton University in Ottawa, where he is now in his third year, working toward a bachelor’s degree in engineering communications.
Zidan hopes to pursue a master’s degree after that, where he might focus on the “Internet of things,” he says. He is also learning how to ice skate, a popular pastime in Canada.