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Q&A: Mustafa Bahran, a scholar forced to flee his country

30 March 2018

The physicist faces an uncertain future after escaping persecution and war in Yemen.

Q&A: Mustafa Bahran, a scholar forced to flee his country
Credit: Cidney Hue for IIE

“I am a man of peace and intellect, not war,” Mustafa Bahran told representatives of the rebel de facto government in Sana’a, Yemen, in 2015 when they repeatedly tried to woo him to work for them. Eventually the physicist and former cabinet member lost his home, his job, and his sense of security. “I received a warning that I had to get out,” Bahran says.

He went to Saudi Arabia and then to the US, where since January 2017 he has been teaching at the University of Oklahoma (OU). The university matched a fellowship from the New York City–based Institute of International Education Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE-SRF).

Along with record numbers of refugees worldwide, the number of scholars fleeing their home countries due to persecution and conflict is on the rise. From 2015 to 2017, the IIE-SRF saw a 50% increase in applications for fellowships. Last year it helped fund and find hosts for nearly 200 at-risk scholars. Other organizations are seeing a similar swell in at-risk and refugee scientists (see Physics Today, April 2018, page 24).

Bahran felt the need to flee despite his many accomplishments in his home country. Over two decades he cofounded the Yemeni Scientific Research Foundation; founded the country’s National Atomic Energy Commission (NATEC), the local counterpart of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); established an annual science conference; launched a scientific journal; served as minister of electricity and energy; and for more than a decade was science adviser to the president. All the while, he was on the faculty of Sana’a University, Yemen’s largest.

Now in Oklahoma he is physically and financially safe, but his long-term future remains uncertain.

PT: Describe your early years.

BAHRAN: I grew up in a progressive family. My father was part of the military revolution that removed the king—the imam—and introduced the Republic of Yemen and all the things that came with it, most importantly education for boys and girls. He was one of the few members of the revolutionary group who were not military, who were just educated gentlemen. He became the minister of mass media and the general secretary of the ruling party. Then, in 1967, there was a coup against the republic.

My father had to escape and he went to Egypt. I went to school there from fourth grade through seventh grade. At the time, Egypt was way more advanced than Yemen—it was like going from Yemen to Europe now. I excelled in school in Egypt and continued to excel when I returned to Yemen.

PT: What about college?

BAHRAN: I was offered a scholarship to the Soviet Union to study medicine. But by then I was already a member of the Socialist Party—I became a socialist at the age of 14. Because of my political beliefs, I decided to stay home to struggle against the regime.

I enrolled at Sana’a University in 1977. It’s not highly ranked, but it is the best in the country. In my third year I was captured as a political prisoner because I was secretary of the underground chapter of the Socialist Party at the university. The intelligence machinery of the regime at the time would capture students before finals so they missed their exams. In prison I was interrogated, tortured, and so on, like anybody else. So I graduated a year late. Then I became a teaching assistant at Sana’a. In Yemen that is a permanent job. It’s basically the bottom academic job.

PT: Why did you go into physics?

BAHRAN: A friend of mine was in Oklahoma. He went a year before me—he didn’t go to prison. He went to OU to do chemistry education. I got a USAID [US Agency for International Development] scholarship. I was sent to do physics education. But when I got to OU, I changed my mind. I loved physics more, so I switched.

PT: What area of research did you pursue?

BAHRAN: I worked in experimental neutrino physics. George Randolph Kalbfleisch became my mentor. He was a student of Nobel Prize winner Luis Alvarez. The second man who guided my work was Kim Milton, a theorist.

At the time—this was 1985—there was a famous paper that caused a fuss. It was a claim for the discovery of a 17 keV heavy neutrino in beta decay. George proposed that he and I work on this topic. We built a tritium proportional chamber, and in 1987 we presented our first result: null. We built a better chamber to reduce the effects of tritium absorption by the chamber’s walls. It was hydrocarbon-free and it worked beautifully. We got an unmistakable null result—no heavy neutrino.

After my PhD I continued at OU for a year as a postdoc. But my family was pushing me hard to come home, and the Yemeni government encouraged me to go back—they needed me. I returned to Yemen in the summer of 1993.

PT: What did the Yemeni government need you for?

BAHRAN: At the time, Yemen had no nuclear scientists, so they needed me to teach nuclear and particle physics.

I joined Sana’a University immediately. And I continued to do research and teaching. I worked on the neutrino issue and then did phenomenological theory. With a colleague, I tried to calculate the proton charge radius as well as cross sections of various processes. For example, you take quark structure functions that other people have published and use them to model the proton. But I didn’t have many collaborators, and I didn’t have powerful enough computing facilities. By 1999 I had switched to nuclear energy.

I switched because I was asked by the government to help the republic join the IAEA. The reason was to explore peaceful applications of nuclear energy. At the time, I was advising the minister of electricity. When Yemen joined the IAEA, we needed to establish a counterpart in Yemen. I founded NATEC from zero. The most important purpose was to be a regulatory body. Yemen had a large oil industry, and radioactive sources were brought in and out of the country for industrial nondestructive testing work, such as to check pipeline integrity.

I trained more than 100 regulators—young men and women—through the IAEA. Another element was to train people to work in customs, border control, and as x-ray technicians. We in NATEC trained everybody that worked in anything to do with radioactivity. It was about safety and security. Safety is about people and the environment, and security is about securing radioactive materials from the wrong people, malevolent people.

We also introduced many peaceful applications of nuclear energy: radiotherapy, nuclear medicine, and tracer technologies for early cancer screening and for screening newborns for thyroid deficiency. There are many medical applications. And in agriculture, we used nitrogen-15 as a tracer to study the mechanism of irrigation, growth, and soil nutrition. This was through the IAEA. It was a huge, very successful program: Farmers could produce twice as many potatoes per unit area of land using half the amount of water.

PT: What about the Yemeni journal of science and science conferences?

BAHRAN: I did that with colleagues. In 1996 we established the Yemeni Scientific Research Foundation. We published a journal of science twice a year. The volume of science in Yemen is small, and the journal covered all sciences—you would be lucky to have one physics paper per issue. There were more in geology and medicine. We also conducted an annual science conference. It gave Yemeni scientists an opportunity to get in contact with each other and with Yemeni or Arab scientists who were in their fields but outside of Yemen. We did this for eight years. We were trying to establish standards.

PT: What did you do as minister of electricity and energy?

BAHRAN: I was only minister for one year, but the list of accomplishments is long: generation, transmission, distribution, connectivity, energy-loss reduction, standards, transparency, and more. When I became minister, I learned that less than 40% of the population was connected to the national grid. Also, there were blackouts for more than a third of the day. I was appointed in May 2007, and by September there were no more blackouts. By the time I left the ministry, I had also added 8% of the population to the grid.

In collaboration with the World Bank and others, we created national strategies for rural electrification and for renewable energy, and we drafted an electricity law. The renewable energy strategy concentrated on wind, solar, geothermal, and nuclear energy. But these efforts went down the drain because Yemen is not stable enough to implement solar or wind energy, let alone nuclear energy. It needs economic stability and security first.

PT: How were you able to accomplish those improvements?

BAHRAN: Good administration and forward thinking bring technology. Here’s an example. A major power plant was on the Red Sea. The installation power was 160 MW. When I became minister, it was running at about 90 MW. I visited the power plant. There were good engineers, but they were not taken care of. I asked what they needed, and I raised their salaries by 25%. In addition, I said, “I will give you a raise for every MW increase you achieve.” I delegated authority but told people they had to be accountable. It’s very simple. It’s not reinventing the wheel. We got the power plant up to 150 MW. But do you know how much this power plant is producing today? Practically nothing.

PT: Why did you leave the ministry?

BAHRAN: All of a sudden you hear that someone else has become the minister of electricity and energy, and you know you have been removed. It was because of my achievements. For a normal government, it would be nothing out of the ordinary. But in Yemen, they thought I had become politically ambitious. I was not. I was a technical guy.

The last successful electricity minister in Egypt under [Hosni] Mubarak told me: “Mustafa, in the West they say, do not shine more than your boss. In our region, do not shine. Period.” In Yemen, you have to be like any other politician. You can be in the job for your own gains, or to advance personal, tribal, or family interests, but not to advance the country.

PT: What did you do next?

BAHRAN: I went back to NATEC for another year, as vice chairman. But I became a real target. The amount of dirt they—the enemies of science and progress, led by an ignorant tribal general who is still in power—threw at me became unbearable. I no longer had the protection of the cabinet. So I left the government altogether. I quit NATEC in November 2010. I went back full time to the university.

PT: When, why, and how did you leave Yemen?

BAHRAN: A comprehensive air campaign started in March 2015. In the fighting since then, there have been more than 10 000 deaths. It’s far less than in Syria, but nonetheless, it’s a forgotten war.

The house my family and I lived in was destroyed by shock waves on April 21, 2015. The doors and windows flew. The interior decor, the furniture, everything, flew. Nothing was left except the rocks and concrete.

Politically, financially, materially, security-wise, and health-wise, life was no longer bearable. My salary was stopped. The blood that is being spilled from all sides is Yemeni blood. I did not want to be part of this ugly war. I would not get my hands dirty with my own countrymen’s blood. I wanted to finish my life with blood-free, clean hands and a clean spirit and conscience.

I left in June 2015. I took a small, unmarked car. With a driver, I drove through the normal checkpoints. I showed my university ID badge. Nobody recognized me. At one checkpoint, a soldier said, “Hold on, I know you.” He went to call his headquarters. It was 5 in the morning, and luckily no one answered. I told him, “I am a professor. You could be my student.” He let me go.

I crossed the border into Saudi Arabia and showed my diplomatic passport to the Saudi guards. I was let in and given a temporary visa.

I had friends at the university in Riyadh, a very nice nuclear physics group. They needed a man who could run the radiological safety office. The pay was good. And I would have been teaching and conducting research. But the Saudi government didn’t give me a work permit.

I waited for a year and a half. My family and I—my wife and kids had gone to Riyadh by bus a few weeks before me—were living basically on loans from friends, and we were living for free in the house of a Saudi nuclear physicist. My debt was mounting. I started to look for jobs in the US and Canada. But it takes time. Then I contacted IIE-SRF, and it happened very fast. I came to the US on December 4, 2016, and began teaching in Oklahoma in January 2017.

PT: What are your plans?

BAHRAN: My two oldest children are US citizens. Another has temporary status, and we don’t know how long he will be allowed to stay in the country. Those three are from a previous marriage. My wife and I have a 17-year-old son. When he turns 18, it will be a gamble whether he can stay in the US. My wife took him and the two younger children and crossed the border into Canada. Canadian volunteers were there to help the refugees with the process. They actually helped carry luggage. It’s just beautiful.

I have accepted a position as visiting professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. I will drive to Canada at the end of the semester. I am very excited to join my family.

PT: Do you want to return to Yemen?

BAHRAN: Absolutely. I want a country to go to. That means peace. That means democracy, a civil government, and the rule of law. And I think I still have much to offer, and much energy to help the people of Yemen.

On behalf of everyone who has had to exit their country, I tell you: We may have exited our countries, but our countries have never exited us.

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