Scenarios of Reconstruction
“After the crisis, I was thinking what I can do to help,” says Dr Abdulkader Rashwani, a Syrian chemist from Aleppo. “Then it came to me: Concrete! That’s my speciality. There was so much rubble in the region, and I began to think we can reuse this material for short or mid-term to help rebuild!” In 2018, Rashwani embarked on a collaborative research project with the University of Sheffield, the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, facilitated by the Cara Syria Programme, to recycle the rubble and debris from collapsed buildings for new construction materials in the hope that rebuilding would be faster and less costly when the war was truly over.
Chemists can experiment in solitude on their work, remaining underappreciated for their discoveries for years until the community around them finally begins to make sense of their work’s importance. This has been the story for Rashwani who has focused on concrete technologies in Syria for over a decade. At the University of Aleppo, he wrote a doctoral thesis on improving the manufacture of local materials to make the fine aggregates that make up Portland cement; then, in 2016, when he joined Sham University in northwest Syria as an assistant professor (he is now vice-rector), he began to develop novel formulations, test new materials, and dream of ways to make Syria, and other places, reverse physical destruction caused by conflict. The goal: to become more sustainable and reliant on homegrown innovations. “Academics are not ordinary people”, he says, “We are educated people, so if we don’t understand the issue or have any interest, then why are we here? Why are we alive?”
After the February 2023 earthquakes, the wider local and international community realised the significance of this seemingly singular work. An article was published in the Guardian about rebuilding Syria from recycled aggregate, and people from all over the world began to get in touch. “Now the community understands what we were doing.” Rashwani says, “Before that, the community thought this was a project with no real purpose. In March alone, I received many emails about our project because of the earthquakes. Contractors wrote to me on LinkedIn having seen the Guardian article because they were interested exploring our work for their own industries. A company from England wanted to know whether we had tested for the presence of asbestos in the rubble. Companies from Ukraine said, ‘We have a lot of rubble; we need your experience!’ A German company finally offered to help with much-needed equipment. We are at the first stage, but it looks hopeful.”
Rashwani and the team had to thoroughly assess the recycled concrete aggregate to confirm its reuse potential. They collected and tested materials and began to simulate reconstruction scenarios. The chemical and physical properties of the aggregate were measured, and evidence provided that recycled aggregate can be used as a sustainable alternative to natural coarse aggregates in concrete.
Their work is still in its infancy. It needs to be scaled up, and special equipment needs to be secured, but a German company has promised to help. Rashwani thinks daily about how to get a project building on their work off the ground. “We will do it bit by bit, small initiatives. We need to do some economic and technological research to finalise it. Is it suitable, for example, to bring all this debris into one place or bring a stationary crusher to every site?”
Rashwani has ingenious ideas when it comes to cementitious materials. He has developed a Syrian version of LC3, a novel cement based on a blend of limestone and calcined clay, which can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 40%. It is cost-effective and does not require capital-intensive work (which is good because the war paralysed the concrete industry,) and it performs.
“I have theoretical and practical experience in concrete and building materials,” he says proudly. While studying to be a chemist at Aleppo University, where he gained both his undergraduate and doctoral degrees, he also worked at a ready-mix concrete factory as the chemistry lab supervisor and gained considerable experience in the field of chemical engineering whilst making new design-mixes. “I went there every morning, and every day we tested different aggregates in the lab and improved the mixes for them. Also, we added new chemicals to the concrete. I also introduced several by-products in this factory.” Those by-products came from vegetable oil waste used to power the furnaces. Rashwani surveyed the industry and concluded that Syria had the resources, but issues with energy and poor cement hindered its growth. “The innovation in my PhD was to add new materials like zeolite and gypsum to the cement.” He discusses the percentages used as if he were producing a cake; for example, which ingredient might replace clinker, and expensive imports that might be substituted with even better materials, making energy savings here, reducing pollution there, as well as other ground-breaking findings.
In retrospect, he sees that official myopia sometimes hindered Syria’s research infrastructure. It was the factory in his native Aleppo that afforded him the space to experiment. After he completed his thesis, which he published in 2010, Rashwani sent a formal letter to the Ministry of Industry. “I told them that Zeolite was a new material and useful for our country etc., but there was no answer. Other people in our lab came up with innovations, but the government did not help. As a chemist, there are many things we can do, but nobody cares about it. In our lab, my friend worked with refractory materials in bricks and stones. We used them inside the furnace to make cement and glass. Syria imported bricks, but here, he had prepared a high-quality local version which would prevent having to import, but nobody cares.” The Ministry of Industry replaced the factory owner once the war began, making it difficult for Rashwani to re-enter his lab and causing him some anxiety. The factory was eventually shelled and destroyed, and with it, enormous technical capability.
Upon graduation, Rashwani accepted a teaching position in the civil engineering department at Al-Baath University, half an hour away by car in the city of Homs. He drove there intending to start a new life, but once the uprisings began, he had to abandon his teaching position: “You know, I didn’t accept the war,” he says, “I was not going to fight. About 40 per cent of my city was destroyed by the war. So, I looked for a safe place, and that place was Turkey.”
Arriving in Gaziantep in 2013, where he and his young family still live today, he began to teach chemistry in a high school until his PhD was accredited by the Turkish authorities, a relatively swift process due to his published research. Gaziantep became a not-too-unfamiliar new home of sorts: “It is like Aleppo. There is also a citadel here, like in my city. My wife is covered, so she feels free here, and at least my family is safe.” But the reality of Syria tugged at him, and in 2016, when an opportunity came for him to return to join old colleagues at Sham University in non-regime Northwestern Syria, he did not hesitate: “I didn’t want to leave my people. So now I cross the border every day. Two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. Every day, four hours on the road. I have a goal. To support people. I don’t want to leave them alone, I want to give them hope for the future. We must think as a society, not individuals or a family.”
Rashwani is one of many Syrian academics who cross the border daily to work at Sham University. He carpools with other academics, two women and six men, living in Gaziantep. “We travel together, work together, and teach together. We go in two cars. We are very optimistic, and when we work as a group, you feel that you have given even more, and this feeling supports us, and we support each other.”
Fellow academics living in Turkey introduced Rashwani to Cara’s work. They told him that Cara helped academics at risk, so he sent an email, and they responded. “In 2016, Cara had a background in the Iraq crisis, and then they turned to Syria. They didn’t know what we needed, and we didn’t know what we needed, so we grew together.”
Cara, he feels, has assisted at every twist and turn of his career at Sham. “I am very grateful to Cara. I am a researcher who can read articles in English and publish in English, but my conversation is not good, so in the first strand, I was assigned an English tutor.” Then, he progressed to the literature review and writing workshops held in Istanbul, and in 2018 applied for and was awarded a Syria Programme research grant and partnered with Professor Provis and colleagues at the University of Sheffield. In 2019, he made the most of a Cara-facilitated research incubation visit to the University of Sheffield. “I spent about 22 days researching concrete with Professor John Provis, and Drs Theodore Hanein and Maurizio Guadagnini. Doing this project with an international university was great, and it improved my knowledge and skills. Sheffield is a small city, but they have good modern equipment to classify and test material. It was amazing for Cara to support this stay there.” He and 32 other Syria Programme participants were then granted 5-year fellow status by the University South Wales (USW) as part of the USW/Cara Fellow Scheme, providing all important institutional affiliation and online access to USW’s resources, including its library. Sham University does not have international recognition.
Rashwani has held many different positions at Sham and is now Vice-rector for Academic Affairs and Chair of Sham’s Quality Assurance Committee, responsible for setting new policies and broadening the school’s academic remit. Along with his collaborative concrete study with Sheffield University and METU (Middle East Technical University), he has been busy integrating new guidelines for the university and its various councils and committees, co-authoring a paper on a risk-based approach to quality management in higher education, a study commissioned by the Cara Syria Programme and published in the International Journal of Educational Research Open (IJEDRO) in 2022. He is committed to Sham and wants to create a suitable environment and institution for the next generation. If we all left, then what would happen? This region would disappear. As a Syrian academic, I want to support this university and its students.”
“I called Cara and said, ‘Now is a good time to establish a research centre at Sham so that we can conduct more research!’ and Kate (Robertson) said she would see what she could do!” What would his vision of a research centre at Sham University look like? He describes an idea of international and regional engineers in collaboration with engineers at Sham, the epicentre of rubble, challenged by major seismic fault lines but emerging out of conflict with energy, expertise and experience. He believes that a small scale sustainable Syrian concrete industry in the northwest, open to the ingenuity of young researchers, would conduct sustainable research that would take into account environmental, socioeconomic, and political forces. It is a vision of reconstruction that finds resonance in the past. There is some poetry when one learns that the first ever concrete-like structures were built by the Nabataean traders in Syria and Jordan who were experimenting with building kilns in 700 BC to supply mortar for the construction of rubble-wall houses, their cool concrete floors and underground hydraulic cisterns, some of which still survive today hidden under the desert.