Builder of bridges
Ghaleb Natour came to Germany in 1979. Born as a Palestinian in Israel, he saw no future for himself in his home country. 41 years later, in Jülich, he has established the largest German-Palestinian research cooperation in Germany.
The huge photo on the wall draws a viewer’s attention: a gnarled olive tree adorns the picture. Firmly rooted, grown over centuries. The motif radiates strength, confidence and calm – similar to the man who photographed it: Ghaleb Natour, Director of the Central Institute of Engineering, Electronics and Analytics and professor at RWTH Aachen University, who was born in 1960 as a Palestinian in Israel. “The fruit, the odours – I identify with the land, no matter what it’s called!” His Palestinian compatriots often blankly shake their heads when the 60-year-old emphasises that he is Israeli and Palestinian: “Many people are like this when it comes to religion: you are either Muslim or Christian. For them, there is nothing in between,” says Natour. He has succeeded in this balancing act, however: with a German wife, Catholic parents-in-law, Muslim parents and two children who are open to both religions. The physicist is a bridge builder between Palestine, Germany and Israel, without wagging a finger and with a lot of patience, strength and confidence.
“We want to give the students a future as scientists in Palestine.”
He came to Germany in 1979 because he saw no future for himself in Israel: the discrimination Natour experienced as a young Arab Palestinian in Israel was too strong. The 19-year-old ended up in Heidelberg, learned German, studied physics – and stayed. He has never regretted this decision. However, the deep attachment to his native country has remained. So even as a young man he had in mind to one day use his experience for innovation projects in the Middle East.
Rawan Mlih, age 38, doctoral researcher at the Institute of Bio- and Geosciences
I was already at Jülich in 2015 for my master’s thesis. In 2018, I came back to do my doctorate. Jülich is a high-tech location and offers students many opportunities for research. Moreover, in Germany, women, too, have the opportunity to pursue a career in science. In Palestine, women also opt for a scientific branch – not to become researchers, however, but teachers. Or they end up in unemployment. I also like the fact that people in Germany are free to express their opinion.
Initially, there were only minor activities such as lectures for scientists in Palestine. However, the idea of an exchange increasingly took shape until Natour finally successfully applied for the Palestinian-German Science Bridge at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF): the kickoff took place in 2016. Today, in 2020, Forschungszentrum Jülich can look back on a collaboration between the two countries that is unique in Germany. Over the years, about 50 Palestinians have taken advantage of the offer to conduct research at Jülich. The proportion of women is at a good 50 per cent. Meanwhile, the number of applicants clearly exceeds the available placements. “These are excellent applicants who, as young scientists, are an asset to Forschungszentrum Jülich,” emphasises Caitlin Morgan from Corporate Development, who is responsible for the organisational part of the Science Bridge.
Promoting excellence is not the only issue, however. “We want to establish a sustainable infrastructure for experiments and scientific measurements so that, in addition to pure teaching, Palestinian universities can develop a research practice that will offer students a future in science,” explains Ghaleb Natour.
What a lot of people don’t know: at Palestinian universities, learning and teaching takes place, but research is rarely conducted. There are hardly any laboratories or large-scale equipment. “If, for example, a lathe were sent to Palestine so that machine engineers could learn how to operate such a machine, it would not even pass through Israeli customs – on the grounds that the Palestinians could build weapons with it,” explains Natour.
But the 60-year-old will not be discouraged. Instead, in persuasive efforts for the benefit of research, he has repeated talks with the presidents of the Palestinian universities, or he talks with young faculty members who understand and support his approaches. “With them and with the graduates from Jülich, we are building the research infrastructure brick by brick,” Natour says confidently. Among them are Rawan Mlih, Hasan Sbaihat and Falastine Abusaif, who are doing their doctorate at Jülich and want to help shape Palestine’s scientific future. Time and again, the heads of the Jülich institutes also confirm how ambitious, motivated and disciplined the guests from the Middle East are. “We started the cooperation with one institute director in Jülich, and today, 22 are involved,” says Natour happily.
Falastine Abusaif, age 32, doctoral researcher at the Nuclear Physics Institute
Thanks to the Science Bridge, I was able to realise my dream of a doctorate as a nuclear physicist at Jülich – and truly under the working conditions required for high-precision physics experiments. Surprisingly, it is mainly men who study mathematics and physics in Germany, which is different in my home country. However, I have to honestly admit: I miss my home a lot, my neighbours, the social fabric and the Islamic call to prayer in the mosque – especially during Ramadan.
While the first years of cooperation were unilateral in character, with young Palestinians coming to Jülich, a mutual exchange is increasingly taking place: German scientists give seminars, workshops and lectures in Ramallah and the Palestinian Universities throughout the year. Apart from the motivation to gather new impressions, there is another aspect that makes Jülich scientists’ stays in Palestine appealing: the pleasent climate. Sun and heat, for example, allow the algae researchers to carry out some experiments better in the land of olive groves than at Jülich. The photovoltaic industry also benefits from the sunny location. At the same time, the visiting German scientists promote understanding of the importance of outstanding research – which, however, requires measuring instruments and laboratories.
“We started the cooperation with one institute director in Jülich, and today, 22 are involved!”
Hasan Mohammad Hasan Sbaihat, age 28, doctoral researcher at the Jülich Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine and at RWTH Aachen University
There are big differences between Germany and Palestine – practically on all levels. The biggest difference in research is the lack of scientific equipment in my home country, but it is precisely this equipment that is at the heart of research and helps scientists to make progress. Plus: unlike Germany, Palestine provides only marginal financial support for research. During my two-year stay at Jülich so far, I have already been to Palestine twice, supported by the Science Bridge, and have given courses at universities dealing with how new, modern imaging techniques help to diagnose diseases in the brain. By passing on my newly acquired knowledge, I contribute to building a new generation of researchers in Palestine.
Further financing secured
When the Palestinians come to Jülich, they bring new approaches with them, for example cell lines or a new algorithm that they want to optimise. Or they use computer simulations to compare the different behaviour of female and male pedestrians in Germany and Palestine – this has already resulted in joint publications in journals.
Once a year, all those involved meet for a major conference, sometimes in Jülich, sometimes in Palestine. “Of course there are geopolitical problems with the Gaza Strip, which is hermetically sealed. If the workshop is held in Ramallah in the West Bank, for example, the scientists from the Gaza Strip can only be connected via video conference. It is not at all possible to participate personally,” explains Natour. It makes him all the more hopeful that two women from the Gaza Strip are currently doing their doctorates at Jülich.
In 2021, funding for the Science Bridge would actually have ended. Ahead of schedule, however, due to the high demand and good cooperation, the BMBF has extended the project to 2024 and increased the funding. “We want to open the programme further, involve universities of applied sciences and take vocational training into account in order to strengthen the mid-level faculty in Palestine,” explains Natour. His scientific commitment has long since developed into a matter close to his heart in order to give Palestine a future in science and technology – precisely the future that Ghaleb Natour was denied in his home country.
Two science bridges, one success story
Ghaleb Natour developed the initial ideas for cooperation with Palestine in talks with the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) in 2010. In December 2016, the starting signal was given for the “Palestinian-German Science Bridge” (PGSB), and in March 2020, the BMBF approved its extension to September 2024. The total budget is around € 5.8 million. More than 20 young women and men are doing their doctorates at Jülich, 16 master students and ten bachelor graduates have completed their theses. The funding programme contributes to the long-term and sustainable establishment and development of the research and technology infrastructure at Palestinian universities.
There are also long-standing ties with Georgia: the Georgian-German Science Bridge (GGSB), which was founded in 2004, resulted from a contact between scientists from Tbilisi State University and Forschungszentrum Jülich in the early 1990s. An integral part of the cooperation are workshops, three jointly operated SMART|Labs in Georgia, guest lectures and research visits of Georgian scientists to Forschungszentrum Jülich.
Photos: Forschungszentrum Jülich/Ralf-Uwe Limbach