In 2014, Ijaz Qadeer (48) still lived in his country of birth, Pakistan. He started to receive dozens of threatening text messages, telling him he had the ‘wrong’ faith and advising him to ‘prepare for his death’. The veterinarian took his family and hastily fled the country, eventually finding refuge in the Netherlands. In the near future, he will be able to – ‘finally!’ – continue his work as a researcher at Erasmus MC, thanks to a special grant awarded by the funding agency Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

Every year, the Netherlands offers shelter to thousands of refugees who face an uncertain future in their home country. In 2015, their number rose dramatically due to the civil war in Syria. In response, NWO considered setting up a dedicated grant scheme for refugee scientists. Last year, the agency set up a pilot programme together with The Young Academy, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and the Foundation for Refugee Students (UAF): ‘Refugees in Science’.

Last month, NWO announced this year’s allocations, which will enable 12 academics with a refugee status to set to work for a year as a researcher at a Dutch scientific institution. The two female and ten male scientists will be added to various research projects that are currently supported by NWO funding.

One of the projects that have been awarded an NWO grant will be carried out in Rotterdam, at Erasmus MC. Which is also where we meet up with Qadeer and his future supervisor, Professor of Ophthalmology and Epidemiology Caroline Klaver. Sitting in Klaver’s office on the 28th floor, the two scientists talk about how their collaboration came about and what research Qadeer will be performing in Rotterdam from March on.

Dr Qadeer, you were forced to flee Pakistan in 2014. Did you consciously decide to apply for asylum in the Netherlands?

Qadeer: “No. At a certain point, our situation had become so threatening that I didn’t have that many options. And the tickets that were available at short notice – thanks to a friend of mine who worked at a travel agency – were for a flight to the Netherlands.

“I didn’t actually want to leave Pakistan. I had a master’s degree, earned my doctorate in veterinary medicine there and had a good job as district head of the veterinary department of the provincial government of Punjab. But I had to flee the country for religious reasons. I am an Ahmadiyya Muslim. This Islamic movement is not recognised in Pakistan. In fact, it is actively discouraged by the government: there are all sorts of anti-Ahmadiyya laws, for example. Highly educated adherents with a good job are common targets. At a certain point, they had singled me out too. I started to receive threats over the phone from religious extremists, and death threats via text message. The police refused to protect me, so I saw no other option than to flee the country – both for my own safety and that of my family.”

“If I had a choice at the time, I might have gone to an English-speaking country – the UK, for instance. They have a large Pakistani Ahmadiyya community there. And of course, I already speak English. But upon arriving in the Netherlands, I immediately decided it was important to learn the language. I put a lot of time into it over the first few years. By now, I can speak Dutch at the C1 level [‘advanced proficiency’, Eds.].”

Going from an asylum seekers’ centre to the university is quite a step. How did the two of you get together?

Klaver: “All credit is due to Ijaz – he tracked down our group here in Rotterdam.”

Qadeer: “I owe a great deal to Professor Nico Schulte Nordholt [professor emeritus at the University of Twente, Eds.]. He was my social coach at Vrijwilligerswerk Nederland and has helped me find my bearings in the Netherlands’ academic system. I registered for university job alerts and joined the Academic Transfer career platform.”

Klaver: “How many application letters did you write again?”

Qadeer: “Over 70. I can honestly say that when it came to finding a job, I left no stone unturned. And then I had the flu precisely when NWO announced this programme for scientist refugees. But fortunately, Professor Schulte Nordholt brought it to my attention.”

Qadeer sent an email with his CV to Martje Fentener van Vlissingen, Director of the centre for animal research Erasmus Dierexperimenteel Centrum. She estimated that Qadeer’s expertise – IVF in animals – could be of interest to Caroline Klaver in her research into myopia. Klaver was enthusiastic and applied to NWO for the grant together with postdoc Adriana Iglesias.

What does myopia have to do with veterinary medicine?

Klaver: “I use zebrafish as a model organism in one of my research lines. Since their eyes are similar to ours, they are well suited for studying the role played by various genes in myopia, for example. At present, we still keep these zebrafish in large containers until we need them for an experiment. But this cultivation can be optimised, both to our and the animals’ benefit – and hopefully Ijaz can help us in this area.”

Qadeer: “It was so nice of you to take me on. I’m so grateful to everyone here – without you, I would never have had this opportunity.”

Klaver, with some emphasis: “I really need your contribution though! We lack the required expertise, which you can bring to the table.”

Could you explain this expertise in further detail?

Qadeer: “In Pakistan, I earned my doctorate with research into bovine IVF. We plan to also use IVF for the reproduction of the zebrafish here in Rotterdam. We’ll be freezing the sperm, and only thawing it and using it to fertilise zebrafish eggs when we need animals for a clinical experiment.”

Klaver: “This allows us to reduce the number of fish used for testing. We’ll be the first department to try this approach with zebrafish – which I think is also one of the reasons why NWO was so enthusiastic about our project. It also means that as a researcher, you lose fewer fish to illness, for example. And we can maintain tighter control over the animals’ genetic material. The population will be subject to less mutation, since it reproduces at a slower rate.”

Should NWO continue this grant scheme?

Both: “Absolutely!”

Qadeer: “It has really opened a door for me. As a refugee, it is very difficult to get a job at one’s level of qualification. Particularly when you’re over 45 – which as I understand it can be challenging for Dutch citizens too.”

Klaver: “Last month, we had a get-together that was attended by the various recipients of this grant. And when you hear what kind of work some of the researchers are doing right now: dropping off packages for DHL, pizza deliveries… It’s such a waste of their research abilities.”

Qadeer: “NWO should definitely follow up on this pilot programme. In science, there are no boundaries.”