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jenny [dot] loftrup [at] kommunikation [dot] lu [dot] se (Jenny Loftrup)
- published 13 December 2018
During a unique rescue operation, Lund University sent armed security forces into an Islamic State (IS) warzone to rescue a doctoral student and his family.
For several years, Firas Jumaah, his supervisor Charlotta Turner and former chief security officer, Per Gustafson, have kept quiet on the events; however, now they are telling their story.
In the summer of 2014, Charlotta Turner was unaware her doctoral student belonged to the Yazidis or that there was a terror organisation called IS. However, Firas Jumaah suddenly left the lab at Kemicentrum (the Centre for Chemistry and Chemical Engineering) and disappeared to Iraq, where his wife and children had travelled to attend a family wedding. It was clear to Charlotta Turner, though, that something serious had happened since Firas Jumaah had a lot of work to do on his research.
“I followed the news closely and read about the Yazidis and learnt how vulnerable the ethnic group was”, says Charlotta Turner, professor of analytical chemistry. In the news, IS presented itself to the world through its first lightning offensive and its terrible videos of propaganda in which people were decapitated. The reason Firas Jumaah had taken the first flight to Iraq was that his wife Rawia, chemistry student at Lund University at the time, and his two children, as well as his mother and siblings suddenly fled from IS which had occupied the neighbouring village , killing Yazidi men and capturing women and children as slaves.
“My wife was panic-stricken, the actions by IS shocked everyone. I took the first plane there to be with them – what kind of life would I have if something happened to them and I was not there?” says Firas Jumaah who travelled to the new war zone to be reunited with his family.
In Lund, Charlotta Turner was worried but one day Firas Jumaah sent her a text message. Charlotta Turner called him immediately. Over a clear phone line he described the situation: he and his family were hiding in an empty bleach factory together with many other Yazidis. There was a shortage of food and water and it was 45 degrees and smelt strongly of bleach. Outside the firing continued and IS had surrounded the city.
“At that point I had no hope, I was desperate. I wanted to tell my supervisor what was happening, I had no idea a professor would be able to do anything for us”, says Firas Jumaah. Instead, he asked her to remove him from the doctoral programme if he was not back in a week. That served as the catalyst for Charlotta Turner.
“What was happening was completely unacceptable, I was so angry that IS had found its way into our world, exposing my doctoral student and his family to this and hindering the research”, she says.
Despite the holiday season she immediately made contact with her immediate manager and also the dean of the Faculty of Science. They were willing to support her in trying to bring her chemistry doctoral student home, despite the fact that LU was not obliged to do anything at all – Firas Jumaah’s trip to Iraq was of a personal nature.
“It was simply compassion. My managers gave me the green light and said ‘just get going’ and that made me proud of my workplace”, says Charlotta Turner.
The decisions that needed to be made were made immediately. It also turned out Firas Jumaah needed to be employed on a doctoral studentship since he was on a scholarship and had not received any payments for over a year since the unrest began in his homeland. LU is responsible for its doctoral students on scholarships and provides funding if the scholarship ceases for similar reasons. The doctoral studentship was organised in record time by a creative administrator despite the fact Firas Jumaah was not even present. However, it was only when Charlotta Turner made contact with the chief security officer at the time, Per Gustafson, that a rescue operation became a realistic opportunity.
“It was nearly as though he had been waiting for an assignment like this. Per Gustafson told me we had procured transport and security companies all across the world”, says Charlotta Turner.
During an intensive couple of days’ work, Per Gustafson organised for a serious and not too expensive security company to take on the assignment.
“It was a unique event. As far as I know, none of the other universities in Sweden have been involved in anything similar”, says Per Gustafson.
Today the family has nearly paid back the expenses paid by the University for the rescue operation.
“I am sure we did not follow each and every rule meticulously. However, Frias and his family were at risk of being killed and it was urgent”, says Charlotta Turner.
Thanks to a series of quick responses, two Land Cruisers with four large, armed security guards managed to remove Firas Jumaah, his wife and their two children from the war zone while IS was killing Yazidis not far from where they were.
“I have never felt so privileged, so VIP. At the same time, it was difficult and I felt like a coward because I left my mother and siblings behind”, says Firas Jumaah.
Both Firas Jumaah’s mother and siblings and his wife’s family managed to escape IS with their lives but their houses were completely destroyed and it took several years before they could work and earn a living again.
With bullet-proof vests and helmets on, Firas Jumaah’s family were driven on a 6 hour detour to the airport in Erbil where they were then flown home with anonymous boarding passes.
“After everything that happened, I have friends who believe I was a secret agent, they cannot believe a professor in Lund had the power to rescue a normal doctoral student”, says Firas Jumaah.
Firas Jumaah has now been granted permanent residency and started work at a pharmaceutical company in Malmö. His wife Rawya Hussein has completed a Master’s in chemistry and is looking for work. The children are eight and ten years old and are happy going to school and playing football in Lund. Returning to Iraq is not an option. Firas
Jumaah says that IS ideology is still alive and waiting for the opportunity to strike again.
“In Iraq I never dared admit to being Yazidi, in Sweden I am as worthy as everyone else. I feel strong, I belong to society and I do my duty to it”, he says, adding that rules which are applicable to everyone is one of the great things about Sweden.
At Kemicentrum this meant, among other things, that nobody could jump the queue to use sophisticated laboratory instruments, irrespective of whether they were students, post-doctoral students or visiting professors.
”Lund University was my most important school. We learnt so much more than how to conduct research, we were guided to become good people”, says Firas Jumaah who says his supervisor and managers were fair and direct.
For example, each month the research group held a group dynamics meeting where small conflicts could be solved before they got bigger.
“There is something wonderful about research, it stretches across the world and unites. You can see the research as a peace project”, says Charlotta Turner.
The first edition of Lund University Magazine – LUM – was published 1968. Today, the magazine reaches all employees and almost as many people outside the university. The magazine is published six times a year. Editor Jan Olsson.
Yazidis are an ethno-religious group with origins in the Middle East, that is, ethnically they are Kurds and religiously they belong to Yazidism which belongs to the Yazdanism group spread across Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Armenia and Georgia as well as Europe in recent times, with the biggest population settled in Germany. There is no reliable data on the total number of Yazidis. Estimates range between fewer than 100,000 and 700,000. Source: Wikipedia