What happens to research in a war zone?

Maziak_SMLess than two years ago, I was putting together a major proposal to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a research and capacity building project to advance tobacco addiction science in the Middle East. This project was to be conducted at the Syria Center for Tobacco Studies (SCTS), which I founded in Aleppo in 2002 with colleagues from Syria and the United States, with support from the NIH.

Shortly after I received the positive note to fund my proposal, I realized I needed to make some decisions about the continuation of our work at SCTS. The events that started in Syria about a year prior to that were gradually closing in on Aleppo. Electricity was becoming unreliable, transportation unsafe, and safety and security in the city were quickly deteriorating as fighting moved to Aleppo’s neighborhoods.

I, as well as most Syrians, never thought that this could happen to our peaceful country and nation. I firmly believed that killing and destruction on such as mass scale was something humanity had long resolved not to allow anymore.  How delusional was that!

Both of my parents are still in Aleppo. In their 80s, the prospects of leaving their home, friends and family was not something they liked. And staying meant spending their late years in the most dangerous and difficult to live place on earth. But I needed to think as well of my staff at the center and their well being. We had a staff of about 10 at the center, eight researchers and two support staff. We needed to think of a new plan for continuation of work, and to quickly move on trying to secure our data and equipment.

We re-established a connection and emergency work plan with staff, who fled Aleppo and settled in neighboring countries. We transferred the new grant to the American University of Beirut, where it will be led by SCTS staff. Those who remained in Aleppo periodically check the equipment and data with the prospect of moving it to one of our homes, if the security of the building hosting the center becomes compromised.

Old city of Aleppo destroyed

Old city of Aleppo destroyed

There was certainly the initial paralysis that comes with such dramatic changes that touched all aspects of our lives. But once we adapted to such harsh realities, we were back in business and produced some of the best work we have ever done. This includes publishing the first randomized clinical trial of smoking cessation program to be conducted in developing countries in one of the top scientific journals, publishing the first conclusive evidence about carcinogenic exposure associated with hookah smoking in another top journal, in addition to several other high caliber reports with broad regional implications. We also began to work on issues related to the health and humanitarian situation of war-affected refugees and civilians in Syria. Currently, we are preparing a proposal for a systematic approach for the assessment and response to mental health needs of Syrian children affected by the war.

When I am asked if I am worried about the fate of my research given that I have invested most of my career in a country and a region engulfed currently with mayhem and uncertainty, I really don’t feel I even need to answer. I worry about my home country and my people; I worry about Syrian children with their pure eyes scarred forever with the horrors they’ve witnessed; I worry about a whole generation with no home, hope, or help; I worry about a conflict with no end in sight; and I worry about a world that yet again decided to look away and shut its ears from the cries of our children. What will I tell my children about the world we live in? This is my biggest worry.

Professionally, I think we will be OK adapting to the changing environment of conflict and be able to use the experience we accumulated working in Syria to try to offer some help at this stage, and perhaps more in the coming phase of rebuilding. Personally, this has been the most profound experience in my life, an experience that has left me still shaking to the core trying to grapple with my role in life, the assumed innate good in humans, and with a home, country, and people who may never come back.

– Dr. Wasim Maziak