Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 January - 2 February 2005
Issue No. 727
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Building a two-way road

Brain drain has left Egypt deplete of some of its most valuable assets. In Washington DC, Laila Saada reports on the possibility of building bridges between a scientific emigrant community and the homeland

Click to view caption
Illustration by Bahgory; EASNA group at the Cultural Centre in Washington DC; Amr Tahawy with artist Latifa at the World Music Awards in Las Vegas

Last week, just as Washington DC prepared for the inauguration of the US president complete with fireworks, candle-lit dinners and a lot of public protests, a group of Egyptian scholars, evidently oblivious to the commotion that was overtaking the city, crammed into the narrow Taha Hussein hall at the Egyptian Cultural and Education Bureau. Their mission was to discuss the future of scientific research in Egypt and the links that can be created to secure the flow of information between Egypt and the US. Tamer Awad, a 30-year- old pharmacology student in Auburn University, Alabama, welcomed all guests on behalf of the Egyptian Students Association of North America (ESANA), over which he currently presides.

The meeting is an annual event bringing together Egyptian scholars, officials and their American counterparts to discuss issues of immigration, funding, and future scholarly prospects. This year however, the agenda focussed on the role of Egyptian scholars abroad in bridging the gap with their counterparts in Egypt. Translating their knowledge into adaptable marketable technologies provided the common thread that brought together this mix of scholars from fields such as bioterrorism and nuclear fusion.

"Through our association, we have established a book campaign through which we collect book donations from several entities here and send them to Egyptian universities back home," said Awad. "Last year we orchestrated the transfer of over 40 tonnes of science books as donations to Zagazig University. That is $70,000 worth of books and journals this year alone."

Over a year ago, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) launched its Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) for 2003 on the knowledge deficit in the Arab region. It was then that most local, regional and international media caught on to the issue of brain drain and its catastrophic results to the development of Arab countries. "It is no exaggeration to characterise this outflow as a haemorrhage," the report stated, estimating that by the year 1976, 23 per cent of Arab engineers and 50 per cent of Arab doctors and around 25 per cent of BSC holders had emigrated outside of their countries.

And a 2001 study published by the Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies, emigrant think tanks were accused of perpetuating terror by leaving a void behind, which serves as a ghetto of angry and frustrated citizens -- a perfect environment for terrorist cells to thrive. According to this study, over one-third of the brain drain heading westwards comes from the Arab world. The study also reports that around 45 per cent of study-abroads never return.

When local and international media picked on the issue of brain drain, they emphasised the need for economic reform in order to attract our lost brain power. Such messages explicitly glorified those experts who chose to return to their home countries and give up their personal and professional dreams for the sake of their country, and also holds a patronising undertone of reproach directed at those who chose to remain abroad.

According to the 10th Afro-Arab Parliamentary Conference in Addis Ababa, around 25 per cent of graduates from Arab universities between 1995 and 1996 have migrated to the West. Furthermore the movement of skilled labour, though difficult to quantify, has increased due to the emergence of new industries like IT.

Conference reports also indicated that by January 2003, 37 per cent of the world's migration of experts and specialists came from African and Arab countries, accruing more than $1.5 billion of estimated losses to Arab states.

In the US, where according to the Census Bureau statistics of 2000, more than 142,832 Egyptians have settled since the early 1970s, many scholars and professionals believe that their migration to the West has provided them with the opportunity to further their education and careers in a way that would not have been possible had they stayed behind.

And as selfish and unpatriotic as those emigrants might appear to those who stayed behind and got stampeded by economic, social or bureaucratic limitations, many emigrant experts in the West have never severed their ties to their home country. In fact, they strongly believe that their unique position as Arab Westerners allows them to straddle both worlds and maintain the bloodline that streams information, innovation and research back home.

Young and old, generations of Egyptians who have come to the US seeking knowledge agree that due to the host of educational, economic and bureaucratic limitations in Egypt, promising careers and research opportunities have become much more limited.

"There are a number of great minds who tried to go back to Egypt at early stages of their careers," said Ibrahim Oweiss, chairman of the Council on Egyptian-American Relations in Washington DC. "But they were not given the proper environment. Archaic laws, limited resources and the hurdles of bureaucracy have all dissuaded them from settling in Egypt, so they all came back."

Yet, according to Oweiss, who left Egypt 45 years ago, once settled in the US, those experts never let go of their ties with their home country. Oweiss himself offered his services to the Egyptian government and was assigned by former President Anwar El-Sadat as chief of the Egyptian economic mission to the US in 1977.

"I have always been involved in Egyptian affairs," he said. "I have twice presided over the Egyptian American Scholars Association and have overseen several projects that aimed at technology and knowledge transfer back to Egypt. There are many organisations around the US which cater to the Egyptian society, and we all complement each other."

One such organisation is NAAMA, the National Arab American Medical Association, a non-profit organisation of medical professionals of Arab descent -- it was established in 1975 with 28 chapters located in the United States and Canada "to promote professional relationships among members and organisations of the medical profession in North America and the Arab world".

Members of NAAMA include a number of medical experts of Arab descent who wish to further the development of the medical and health sector in the Arab world. They provide direct assistance in the form of grants, workshops, textbooks and other learning material to medical schools and research centres.

Fatma Aleem, a prominent gynaecologist and former director in Brookdale University Hospital in New York, joined NAAMA after years of searching for a medium to establish some form of a sustained and systematic channel to help Egypt. Through NAAMA she started conducting symposia, workshops, and conferences where the latest achievements in the field of medicine were shared and discussed.

"NAAMA holds a big conference every year in an Arab country. I managed to bring it to Egypt three times since I joined the organisation," she said. "The key was to let those 300 plus experts go and talk to officials and people in the field and listen to their needs, not just provide them with the expertise they [the NAAMA experts] think Egypt needs."

Sitting in her elegant Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan, Aleem offers tea, coffee as well as kahk which was especially made for her in her hometown of Alexandria, during her last visit to Egypt in December.

"I go home very frequently to monitor and follow-up on our current projects there," she said. "We have a model centre to treat pediatric cancer in Egypt. It is a free service which makes it accessible to the general public."

Aleem left Egypt in 1964 on a scholarly mission to England with the goal of attaining her PhD. She presented her research at an international conference in Italy, which attracted the interest of American attendees and landed her a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin. Initially, she had no intention of staying for long, but when she tried to take her three daughters back to Egypt, the situation quickly deteriorated. With no funds which would allow her to further her research and no adequate education facilities for her children, she decided to re-settle in the US.

"I was very ambitious. My research findings were leading me to further research and my work was internationally recognised. I didn't want to stop," she stated.

Together with a colleague professor in Wisconsin, she created the Egyptian Scientists Society to help Egyptian students. This project was the nucleus from which Aleem's mission to help Egypt sprang to life.

"The issue of brain drain had never crossed my mind then. But it was more the realisation that I was in a privileged position and I wanted to help my colleagues and future scholars back home."

But despite the dearth of resources and out- dated laws and regulations that continue to plague the field of scientific research back home, Egyptian scholars, professionals and entrepreneurs living in the US are confident that the time is now ripe to channel their efforts to benefit their country -- only this time they don't have to give up their personal dreams of international acclaim, fame and maybe a little richesse.

"There is a large pool of Egyptian experts in the West who are eager to help. It's a great resource that is just waiting to be tapped," said Aleem. "Many are discouraged by the perceived bureaucracy and corruption, or at least the apathy on the Egyptian side. But the truth is, there are always great people on the other side that are quite responsive. People just have to dig for such calibres and exploit their eagerness to facilitate the process."

In 1996, Aleem was invited to establish a facility that provides comprehensive healthcare for women. The new facility was to be a replica of Aleem's renowned Well-being Women's Healthcare centre in New York.

"At one of the conferences, the Egyptian minister of health came to me and said: so you are the Fatma Aleem. I heard about your centre from many sources, recalled Aleem. "He continued to say 'there's a limo waiting downstairs, it will take you to a facility that I want you to see. I want you to turn it into a centre like yours.'

"Just like that, in two months he had the greatest centre at Nasser Institute," she said. "The problem is that it only targets wealthy women. But still, it's a good introduction to our country of the basic health needs that women shouldn't be deprived of. I still hope to see these services extended to the middle and poorer classes."

According to both Oweiss and Aleem, the Egyptian government has a great role to play. It needs to instill trust and provide young emigrants with enough information about available channels through which they can give back to their country.

"For our part we are very lucky that the Ministry of Health is on our side and very eager to make full use of our talents and expertise," said Aleem. "Nevertheless we never let go of a project once it stands on its feet, follow-up is just as important as providing the initial service."

At ESANA last weekend, Nabil Fahmi, the Egyptian ambassador to the US, emphasised his support for all Egyptian experts living in the US. "Our main objective now is to further our human capital. This underlies any economic, political and military objectives," said Ambassador Fahmi in his opening address. "However, this relationship is not mutually exclusive. While we promise to offer all the services within our means, we expect our scholars and professionals to keep us updated on the latest developments in the field."

With a speculated average of 1,770 Egyptian scholars currently studying in the US, the embassy also participates in establishing a network of students, professors, scientists and funding agencies here and in Egypt to facilitate knowledge transfer in both directions.

"I urge students who come here to fully assimilate," said the Egyptian ambassador. "Because when they go back home, whether to visit or to stay, they also have to educate our people about American society, not just its science and technology."

Young entrepreneurs who have established their careers in the US are also looking for ways to contribute to the welfare of their country. Using the arts and entertainment as a tool to dispel negative stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims, some have tapped into their creative sides to promote a positive image of Egypt in the West as a modern, tolerant, artistic and most importantly, fun place to live.

In Paramus, New Jersey, a small office building houses Adamson Brothers Inc, a privately owned finance and mortgage consulting firm. Andy, the owner, sits in his office, he is dressed in pinstripes, sports a gold bracelet on his wrist and is surrounded by a backdrop of family pictures and clips from Nancy Ajram's latest music video. Andy is not his real name, Adamson is not his family name and he has no brothers. He is 40-year-old Amr El- Tahawi, who, since landing in the US almost 20 years ago, managed to change his career from law to finance, attained his PhD, worked on Wall Street, started his own business and is now trying to focus some of his overflowing energy on helping Egypt.

"They call me Andy after the Hurricane Andrew," he said. "I'm usually all over the place, relentless in my work and I still have a lot to accomplish. I chose this company name because it's catchy and easily recognised in the American market." His latest accomplishment can be enjoyed at any Middle Eastern café, club or family restaurant: a wide screen featuring the latest Arabic songs. All eyes are usually glued to the sensuous moves of Egyptian singer Ruby and Lebanese idol Nancy Ajram, while the more energetic crowds hit the dance floor with their bellies shaking, hands swaying and tongues murmuring the lyrics of their favourite songs. Surprisingly, many are not Arabs and can't even speak Arabic.

"This is exactly what I want to establish," said El-Tahawi. "To indirectly influence the American perception of our culture. The media here only shows images of blood, brutality and frustrated people. I want to show Americans what a beautiful culture we have and there is nothing like art to showcase that."

El-Tahawi's TV channel has reached audiences all across the US and Canada. Launched last summer 2004, he has signed agreements to air for free to achieve the widest coverage. He is now in negotiations with Australian networks and is considering including French and Spanish language programmes in addition to his bi-lingual Arabic and English shows.

With already two studios in operation, one in Doqqi, Cairo and the other in New Jersey, El- Tahawi is currently building a 13,000 square feet compendium which will entail state of the art studios and equipment fit for a media mogul. And becoming one, is indeed his intention.

"This project is not a money making machine as people would think," said El-Tahawi who depends on personal funds to finance his project.

"However, it indirectly boosts my investment business. I show prospect investors that our country is not this terrorist hub that the media sometimes portrays. I give them a modern, secular version of Egypt that they can relate to and can feel more comfortable dealing with."

El-Tahawi has recently raised over $50 million from an oil company in the US for direct investment in Suez, Egypt. This endeavour, in addition to running Doqqi studio, has generated many jobs for highly qualified individuals in Egypt. Yet to El-Tahawi, there are more ways to give back to his home country than a one-way stream of knowledge transfer.

"If globalisation has brought Western innovation to our country, I intend to globalise the Arabic song as well," he said. "I want to mainstream our songs so that subtly, the next wave after hip hop and R&B becomes Arabic tunes. Most importantly, I am slowly putting a face to every Egyptian back home to nullify the dehumanising effect of the media here. I believe that this is the greatest gift I can think of to give back to my country."

33% Off -- Al-Ahram Weekly Annual Subscription: $50 Arab Countries, $100 Other. Subscribe Now!
--- Subscribe to Al-Ahram Weekly ---

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 727 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Economy | International | Opinion | Interview | Reader's corner | Press review | Culture | Feature | Living | Sports | Chronicles | Profile | People | Cartoons | Listings | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map