The Revolution of Hope

Dr Hanadi Omaish


Dr Hanadi Omaish has been involved with some of the most important advances in technology for over a decade. As a mathematician working in informatics, she has taught the implications of deep learning and artificial intelligence, imagining a future where AI models are applied to the health field and the agricultural sector in both her native Syria and present home of Turkey. She also participates in the long-term rebuilding of her country, using her expertise to explore the issues the war has caused for students in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) sector. She was among the last of a generation to properly benefit from a tradition of STEM excellence in Syria, and to witness its demise.

As a young girl growing up in the City of Homs with her father’s constant support, Omaish was surrounded by inspiring people from whom she drew counsel. Her neighbours were respected in society because of their educational attainment and aspiration for their children to do well. “Their children studied medicine and engineering and contributed to their society. My passion was mathematics, not medicine or engineering, but seeing how they valued education and that dynamic with society inspired me to work hard.”

She began to emulate teachers in the ninth grade, teaching people around her, “That helped me to improve myself and my teaching techniques.” As a result, she came top of her class and graduated with firsts in all her mathematics and informatics degrees and was on her way to Turkey, armed with a scholarship to do her PhD in 2011, when the protests broke out and derailed all her plans. Two days before she was due to travel, the offer was rescinded, and the programme was turned into a local PhD at Al-Ba’ath University in Homs, where she had done her previous degrees.

Acquiring a PhD can be a soul-destroying exercise in self-annihilation, at the best of times. She did it during the worst time possible, while relatives were harmed and detained, and people couldn’t leave their homes, her city under siege, with fluctuating electricity and a young baby to care for. “We moved to Damascus but were subject to various kinds of harassment because we came from Homs. I spent only five months there before returning to Homs, to be able to meet with my supervisor more regularly.”  In 2015, she completed her thesis, ‘Moving from Static Testing to Automated Testing in Software’ and managed to leave Syria with her family to join her husband in Turkey, also an academic, who had gone ahead to prepare the way for her and the children. She likes Turkey but tells me that her husband is more proficient in Turkish than she is and has published in Turkish. He will soon obtain his PhD from Kahramanmaras Sutcu Imam University, which will enable him to teach, whilst she still has to get her Turkish equivalence for her PhD.

“My eldest,” she says, “remembers the displacement from Damascus and back to Homs. He still remembers the bombardments, checkpoints, and military tanks, so he hates Syria. He says he will never return to Syria. He is happy here in Turkey. My youngest knows nothing about Syria; they are happy in our community. Among my family members, I am the one who misses Syria the most. I spent a lot of time in Syria, studying  then teaching at the university.”

That first year of exile was a difficult time. “I felt uprooted from my academic environment. So, Cara inviting us to attend academic workshops was really helpful in giving us this sense of being an academic person again, someone who is part of a community in addition to the direct benefit of research and language training skills. At the time, I think all the academics were feeling the same loss of community. Then we started conducting research ourselves in collaboration with other academics and research teams abroad. After that came the publication process, which Cara facilitated – this was also very helpful. It was difficult because I’d get an invitation to attend a workshop, and then I would have to decline. Kate (Robertson) would communicate with me to ask, ‘why won’t you be able to come?’ and I’d clarify that it was difficult to leave my young children. She covered the expenses for me to attend the workshops and the training with my children so that I wouldn’t be left out. So, the research skills, the English lessons, the fellowships and the publications were all very helpful.”

Omaish now lectures at two universities. Gaziantep University in southern Turkey, where she teaches modules in Arabic in the Faculty of Engineering, and Al-Sham University in northwest Syria, an area outside of the Assad government’s control, where she is the only female lecturer in the Faculty of Engineering, teaching mathematics and computer science in the departments of civil engineering, electronics and communications, and chemical engineering.

It’s a long commute across the border to Al-Sham University opened in 2016.  But the university, serving a population of people who have undergone the trauma of conflict, means a great deal to the academics who have returned from exile to work there to stem the brain drain. “I was keen to work with Syrian colleagues. I am passionate about my work at Sham University. Every year, I try to introduce something new to the students and the curricula so that I feel I am developing myself. The financial reward is not very encouraging, but I feel that I am doing something I like and, at the same time, able to serve students in Northern Syria. It is something I am proud to do.”

She had been stunned by the changes wrought by war. “Before the revolution, “she explains, “we used to accept the highest achieving students graduating from high school, now they have basic knowledge gaps that will affect their university education.” She also noticed a decrease of women in STEM, a complete breakdown of educational infrastructure, trauma and disability and debilitating knowledge gaps which preclude academic success. With the support of a Cara mentor from the University of Bristol, she published a paper on students’ mathematical knowledge gaps. Al-Sham is now implementing some of the study’s recommendations.

Omaish began offering pre-university curriculum type courses for students who were struggling with mathematics, “I focus on the basics to ensure that all students can address their knowledge gaps, to allow them to progress in their university education.” She offered students opportunities to study more practical aspects “something they could use in their professional life later, especially regarding software programming and similar modules.” She mentors her students when she sees them struggling to carve out a space to think. “As a female lecturer, I always encourage my female students to enrol in this discipline if they are interested. I assure them that they will be able to succeed if they manage their time well and prioritise their responsibilities. They can work at home, work outside and still study if they are passionate about the subject.”

In addition, she has just finished working on a forthcoming paper with another female academic supported by Cara, which explores the requirements necessary to facilitating a safe return for Syrians in exile. When we talk it is not long after the earthquake and Gaziantep has been affected. The family are staying with a friend. Her classes at Al-Sham have had to move online. Her students have been affected. Plans have had to be changed. She turns off her camera during the interview because of flagging internet, but her voice, strident and vulnerable in places, is at pains to convey only her hope for human progress in the future.