Bassam el Agez: Refugee to Ph.D

This week I’m sitting down with Dr. Bassam el Agez. I went to see him at one of his friend’s organizations in Brixton called ‘Save The World Club’, an organization dedicated to help refugees and environmental causes, where he shared his story with me about how a young refugee from Gaza defied all odds and became an accomplished academic in London.

APRIL: Hi Bassam, I’ve been told your friends call you Bas, can I call you Bas?

BAS: Yes my name is Bassam but everyone calls me Bas. I’m from Palestine, the Gaza strip. Many many years ago, I came to England as a refugee and somehow I managed to complete a PH.D. in biological chemistry in Essex in the mid-80s.

APRIL: How did you develop an interest in chemistry? You grew in a refugee camp, is that right?

BAS: Yes, I grew up in a refugee camp in the Gaza strip. I was always curious about everything, I did my own studies about things in the wild at school and in my private life… I always had this scientific curiosity. my primary education was provided by the united nations. I did my first degree in the west bank in a university called Birzet, it was near Ramallah, 20 miles away from northern Jerusalem. I studied biochemistry and biology there but I always had dreams of moving to England.

APRIL: Did you know anything about England back then? Did you have access to any kind of technology inside the camp that allowed you access to the outside world?

BAS: I had dreamt of the Beatles and all that stuff. I mean, we were living in real poverty.. we didn’t have access to a lot but I always had the aspiration to get out of that situation and be somewhere else. In the refugee camp, we had a small radio and sometimes I could pick up the BBC world service and I would try and understand and learn with a little notebook I had. I knew I wanted to get out of the situation I was in but not until I moved to the west bank did my dream feel achievable. I had English friends who happened to be my lecturers and teachers at university, I remember one called Mike Allen, he actually encouraged me to try and go to England to study but obviously coming from a refugee camp I didn’t have the means to go and study even though my grades in school were fantastic – but still, I needed to find a way to sponsor my studies.

APRIL: You always hear these stories about people who migrated to other countries with very little money and then made it out big, but you actually – had nothing, when you came over. It was a huge risk for you.

BAS: Yes, when I left for England I never thought it would work, I always thought I’d get sent back home. I knew I didn’t have enough documents to prove I could pay for university but I thought I’d give it a shot. I had nothing to lose. I was given a visa to England from the British embassy in Jerusalem because of my good grades from Birzet university, which then had great relations with the British embassy. I was so sure England would send me back because I had no proof of how I was going to pay for myself, and I had friends who had gone and been sent back upon arrival.

APRIL: So, what happened when you arrived in England that day, and what was your mood like?

BAS: I was sitting on that plane thinking I was definitely going to get sent back home. But faith interfered that day – we were supposed to land in Gatwick airport and right before we were due to land, the captain made an announcement saying that we wouldn’t be able to land at Gatwick due to fog so we diverted into a small low-key airport near Birmingham. That airport happened to be just one small building. When we landed, I was ready with my visa and my document – I didn’t even have a passport at that time, I just had a paper that said ‘undefined nationality’ – because Palestinians weren’t recognized as Palestinians in the 80s… so anyway, when we arrived, there was a bus which took us from the plane to this small building, which was the airport, and there were these policemen and officials who were in such a hurry… they just stamped everyone’s passports and suddenly I found myself sitting on the bus back to London with a six-month visa to be in England.

APRIL: It’s as if the universe paved the path for you. What happened then?

BAS: Yes definitely, because Gatwick is strict with customs, so if we had landed there, it might have been very different… well, after that I had to choose a university. I already had acceptances from five universities, but I chose Essex university because it was the closest to London, and the only one I could afford the train ticket to! The others were so far away they weren’t even an option. So, I went to Essex and arrived at the Colchester train station and all the students were collected on buses and taken to the university and we were allocated accommodation… everyone assumed that all the students were ‘sorted out’ – they didn’t know I didn’t have any money at the time haha. A few days later I went to the chemistry department, and I spoke to some professors about the possibility of doing some post-graduate studies and I was advised to go and talk to a professor called mike wilson, who is one of my best friends today. They told me “go see mike Wilson, he’s pro-Palestine, he knows Birzet university very well”.. some of my lecturers at Birzet were his students once upon a time… so he was very familiar with my story.

I went to him and we realized we have a few friends in common from Birzet. He told me “let’s make a plan” which was his catchphrase, and I told him “I have no money to make a plan!”, but he told me “don’t worry, your situation is caused by us, the British, by the Balfour declaration, without that you wouldn’t have been in this mess”, and so he made a plan to help me. At that time he had a few Saudi students whose English was so poor they were completely unable to understand or communicate in any way, let alone learn chemistry. Mike said “you will be the link between my Saudi students and myself since you speak the Arabic language and I will pay you – this is a job and then we will work out a plan”. And since then we have made many more plans together.

APRIL: What an incredible human being, friend and mentor! It really does go to show how one person can change someone else’s life.

BAS: Yes, he helped me a lot. My fees were reduced from overseas fees which then were at £7,000 to home fees which were £250 because Mike wrote a letter to the chancellor and vouched for me. He told the chancellor “this is a refugee from Gaza, he’s good, I believe in him, he’s studying, he’s working, he’s willing to learn…” – I still have all those letters actually – and eventually the chancellor wrote me a letter saying I could pay the home fee as if I was a British citizen instead of what I had been paying.. it was a symbolic moment for me. I was earning £1,000 at that time so suddenly I was like “wow I’m rich! haha”. I continued working and studying hard until I finished and I had great support from friends who helped me eventually obtain British citizenship.. obviously I’m cutting a long story short because there were so many people involved and so much that happened…

APRIL: I can imagine! Did you experience a culture shock when you came to England?

BAS: Culture shock is a bit powerful. I’m quite good at adapting. I came from a very poor refugee camp in the Gaza strip and there was a transformation period at university in the west bank which was a bit like my ‘adaptation period’. It was the first time I was in a mixed-gender situation for example – before that the only women I had dealt with were my sisters! So my time in the west bank helped me adjust a lot in various ways.

APRIL: Where do you think your drive came from? Most of us have parents that nurture and encourage us or we’re beneficiaries of a very supportive environment but that was not your reality. What gave you this determination to create a better life for yourself?

BAS: The drive came from the deprivation that I suffered when I was in the refugee camp. My scientific curiosity was a huge driving force too. I always knew I wanted to get out of my situation and I had friends who went to other countries to study; it wasn’t unheard of that people went to Europe to study but of course being in a refugee camp we had very little resources so it didn’t feel feasible until I went to study in the West Bank.. that was when I felt that I could really prosper despite the difficult situation.

Enjoy the following bonus clips from our conversation.

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