Syrian grad dreams of rebuilding homeland

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One day, Mohammad Noor Tamim hopes to go back to Syria. And when he does, it will be to put his whole heart – and his Western Engineering degrees – into rebuilding his war-torn homeland.

On June 19, Tamim will join more than 300,000 Western alumni living around the world as a newly minted graduate and member of the Western Class of 2020.

A specialist in the science of clean water, he will soon begin his master’s degree at Western – a university in a city he has grown to love for its bike paths, clean air and warm welcomes.

While he wouldn’t be averse to staying in Canada, he thinks often of how his expertise might help in reconstructing Syria, where a nine-year civil war has claimed as many as 586,000 lives, internally displaced 10 million people and made refugees of more than 3 million citizens.

The country that birthed civilizations and cultivated empires lies in ruins, the region that has risen, fallen and been revived countless times once again needs an infusion of the kind of expertise Tamim has developed at Western.

“Hopefully, I get a chance to rebuild my country. This mess might not end within 10 years; you never know. But whenever this war comes to an end, I’m going to try to help as much as possible. Even though I am specializing in water treatment, I took many concrete courses and some structural courses. So, absolutely, I’m going to try helping my homeland.”

Tamim grew up the eldest of four children, with a math teacher mother and a physician father in the city of Homs in western Syria. In 2011, as Homs was laid waste by opposing forces in the civil war, the family fled north to Aleppo.

Within a year, Aleppo became a battleground and they moved again, this time south to the Syrian capital of Damascus. “Then we reached a point where it was tough. We couldn’t live there anymore and moved to Lebanon.”

All his studies had been in Arabic until then. In Lebanon, the language of instruction was English or French; he was fluent in neither.

“Moving from place to place had been difficult enough. But this was the point where I had to change everything,” he said.

Graduating high school, he studied engineering for two years at a university in Lebanon. He arrived at Western in 2016 as a transfer student through the World University Service of Canada, a Canadian nonprofit organization that offers educational opportunities for displaced youth.

After his arrival at Western, he received a Western Syrian Refugee Student Award, one of several initiatives the Western community launched in response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

The first four months here were challenging – but he thrived. He grew a routine: Get up early to study; head to school for classes; more studying; and then, after a 12-hour workday, hit the gym, pool or London’s cycling paths.

In his spare time, he volunteered with the Western Society for Civil Engineering, of which he was also academic commissioner.

“I regret that I wasn’t that involved during my first year. Sometimes adapting to a new culture and to a new society, it takes time. But in starting my second year, I tried to go out more, be more involved. It just boosts your mind.

He continued, “September 2016 is like yesterday. I just love this city. I love this atmosphere here. You see the birds, the squirrels – it’s nice.”

He has received the Dr. James A. Vance Gold Medal, awarded to the student with the highest aggregate final marks of the third and fourth years in the Civil Engineering Program, and an Ontario Graduate Scholarship to continue his water-quality research.

Tamim is trying not to set a timeline beyond the two years it will take to complete his graduate degree under the supervision of Civil and Environmental Engineering professor Martha Dagnew.

His work explores how to stop or treat agricultural run-off entering creeks and rivers, where the high phosphorus concentration combines with summer’s heat in Lake Erie to grow toxic, oxygen-sucking algae blooms that make water undrinkable.

That’s also been the focus of his work the past three summers as research assistant at an environmental engineering laboratory focusing on water treatment.

He speaks with his parents several times a week but hasn’t seen them in person in almost four years.

His siblings are following their own paths: One brother began master’s studies in agricultural economics at McGill two years ago. Another is studying computer science as an undergraduate in Beirut. A sister is in elementary school.

Tamim looks forward to his further studies and wouldn’t have traded his undergraduate Western experience for anything.

“These four years (as an undergraduate) were the most significant part of my life. I learned a lot. I grew a lot. I think I’m blessed.”