Starting anew: the refugee engineers
Image credit: OpenvVPN
Eight inspirational engineers share their stories of fleeing persecution to seek asylum in a new country. These refugees discuss the challenges they’ve faced – and overcome – and the successful careers they’ve built.
Immigration is a highly controversial topic. As we mark World Refugee Day on 20 June, the latest UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) statistics paint a harrowing picture. In the first half of 2022, 103 million people were forcibly displaced globally, a huge leap from the period before (89.3 million), linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The figure for the first six months of 2023 is forecast to be higher still, with the UNHCR predicting more than 800,000 people will flee from Sudan alone.
But wherever these people end up, all they want is to carry on with their lives, by getting an education, providing for their families and continuing their careers. And, as Mark Davies, head of communications and campaigns at the Refugee Council, highlights: “They show tremendous resilience and determination in overcoming the challenges they’ve faced and are eager to give back to their new communities.”
“Refugees want opportunities, not handouts,” adds Kathryn Mahoney, global spokesperson for the UNHCR. “They wish to be self-reliant and are eager to use their talents and passions to contribute to the communities that host them.
“The reality is that many of them come with skills we need and should be valued rather than persecuted, as they’re vital contributors to our society and economy.”
But on the flipside, as refugee Shrouk El-Attar argues, “they shouldn’t deserve our support because they give something back. Instead, we should be thinking how what we do could result in these crises and how it’s our responsibility to help these people rather than expect something in return.”
This World Refugee Day, we wanted to celebrate inspiring engineers who also happen to be refugees. With immigration figures higher than ever, we meet eight engineers forced to flee their homelands, and find out how they are contributing to their new communities and what their hopes are for the future.
Shrouk El-Attar, MEng
“I’m a proud, queer woman, but in my home country people like me are imprisoned,” she says.
She first became concerned for her safety when, during a visit to the UK, 16-year-old El-Attar wrote an article on life in Egypt for LGBTQ+ people and published it on a friend’s website.
“I didn’t know the gravity of my actions; I was just sick of being told that I was ‘wrong’. My friend was sent to prison for two years for publishing that article – and he wasn’t even a member of the ‘community’!”
She knew it wasn’t safe for her to return, so the teenager became separated from her family and forced to prove her sexuality to the Home Office to gain refugee status. This process was humiliating, as it included her having to ask past partners to write in-depth reports of their sexual encounters.
As an asylum seeker, El-Attar couldn’t work, but she could study and was excited to apply to study engineering at university. That was until she discovered that she was classed as an international student and would have to pay fees of up to £20,000.
“That broke me. But I picked myself up and began campaigning for equal access to higher education – I mean, this country needs a lot of engineers – especially ones like me, a bisexual black woman.
“I spoke to university vice-chancellors, to Parliament, joined the board of a charity and I’m proud to say it’s been pretty successful,” she says. We’d agree, as El-Attar has been awarded titles including UNHCR Young Woman of the Year 2018 for her campaigning work.
Shrouk had to wait seven years to gain refugee status and went to university straight after. Electronic engineering was her love, but sadly she hated the industry’s culture and felt she never fitted in. She almost quit engineering three times, but eventually decided to launch her own consultancy where she could work with like-minded people on projects close to her heart.
“I just wish I’d done it sooner,” she laughs. “The projects have been amazing. I’m working with a start-up in Kenya that uses IoT [Internet of Things] to eliminate single-use plastics throughout the supply chain, and I’ve been involved in the development of a smart menstrual cup and creating a printed circuit board that will go on Nasa’s new international space station.”
Hanna Backhash, CEng
As a principal engineer at Jacobs Engineering Group, Hanna Backhash works on a variety of water supply projects, including the design of a 500km pipeline across the UK. His London lifestyle is very different from where he grew up in Aleppo, Syria, and witnessed four years of crisis.
“I watched the revolution happen while at university studying civil engineering, and then things got more out of control – I remember seeing 14-year-olds killed on the streets by snipers.
“I wanted to use my skills to help people and volunteered as a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) assistant for the Jesuit Refugee Services. I scanned and retrofitted abandoned buildings to make them safe for displaced Syrians and refugees from neighbouring countries to live in.”
Backhash stayed in Syria long enough to finish his degree but fled the country the day after his final exam. “I left without knowing if I’d even passed, as my military book still had my status as ‘student’. If I’d waited for my results, then I wouldn’t have been allowed to leave.”
He went on to use his degree – sent to him by his father – and his volunteer experience to work for an NGO in Turkey, again developing secure and safe water supplies. “We implemented programmes inside Syria – including providing water supplies to 14 hospitals in Syria’s liberated north-west,” he explains.
A few years later, Backhash received a scholarship to study a master’s in WASH engineering at Leeds University and began his new life in the UK.
“That was an interesting year. I came with experience working on the frontline in Syria to sit in a classroom in Leeds and get lectured on what to do in emergency situations. In hindsight, I should have been open to learning new ideas, but I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder,” he admits.
Upon graduation, Backhash had to request asylum or be sent back to Syria. “Best case I’d be recruited in the army and forced to kill civilians, worst case I’d be arrested, tortured and executed in jail.”
Once he’d received refugee status, he went into the international development sector, which he found tougher than expected. “A couple of years before, I’d been the local refugee in Turkey watching expats come over and get paid up to ten times more than me. Now I was the expert engineer coming to Sierra Leone to work with the locals. It was a difficult position to be in.
“As a refugee, I was worried that this kind of overseas work might affect my ability to apply for UK citizenship down the line, and so after a few years I moved to the private sector and joined Jacobs.”
Since then, he’s achieved CEng with the Institution of Civil Engineers and currently awaits his indefinite leave to remain from the Home Office.
Francis Dinha, MSc
Innovator and CEO Francis Dinha now lives in the city that never sleeps – Las Vegas – but grew up in Iraq under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. “This was a time when speaking out against the government was punishable by death – I witnessed public executions,” he says.
When their village was bombed, Dinha’s family moved to Baghdad to find ways to survive, which included an 11-year-old Francis selling cigarettes on the street. “My first business venture,” he laughs.
He was able to study, though, and found a love of maths and engineering. After school he knew he’d have to leave Iraq if he wanted any kind of career – or life – and so fled to Sweden, where he sought asylum and went on to complete an MSc in computer engineering at the University of Linkoping.
His early career was spent in Sweden and America working as a broadband system engineer for Ericsson, then he went on to found PacketStream, a start-up that offered dynamic quality-of-service provisioning of IP networks.
He then took on the role of CEO at Iraq Development and Investment Projects, playing a principal role in architecting a joint venture to win Iraq’s mobile communication licence – something incredibly meaningful to him as he was able to support the country he’d had to flee.
Most recently, Dinha co-founded OpenVPN, which provides enterprise-level networking solutions built on the open source VPN protocol.
“When refugees come to the US – and Silicon Valley, in my personal experience – they often come equipped with their education and are overwhelmed by the opportunities. There are so many companies with engineering openings, whereas in other countries, there might have only been one or even none.
“Here you can do anything. You can start your own business in ways that just wouldn’t be possible elsewhere, and refugees don’t take that for granted. We’re also not afraid of taking risks. I risked my life to flee to another country – taking a chance on a company venture just doesn’t seem as stressful after that. That fearlessness, that boldness, is essential for innovation.”
Mustafa Ghashim, MA
Mustafa Ghashim was in the final year of his engineering degree when the Syrian revolution began. He decided to volunteer at an NGO, offering support to Syrian children through summer schools and activity clubs. As the conflict accelerated, so did his humanitarian work, until the war’s escalation led him to seek refuge in Turkey.
Here, Ghashim attempted to return to engineering, but sadly found himself exploited by a nefarious employer.
“They took advantage of my vulnerability,” he says. “I faced overwhelming workloads, long hours, limited training, and a salary of just $400 per month. I felt humiliated and disrespected being forced to accept such inhumane working conditions.”
This experience made Ghashim realise the importance of human rights and he took a job at non-profit No Peace Without Justice, promoting democracy and human rights.
Later, to support his growing family, Ghashim considered starting his own engineering business, but the capital required made this impossible. He instead went back to school after receiving an unconditional offer to study global and international citizenship education at the University of York.
“However, my dream was short-lived as I received threats that I would be arrested or even killed if I returned to Syria, which forced me to seek asylum here. This changed my pathway and I applied for a leave of absence from university to work.”
Today, Ghashim can be found working as a computer science tutor at Nottingham Trent International College, teaching web development and networking modules to international students.
“I’m proud to now work as an engineering tutor and I feel grateful to be able to contribute to creating positive change in every community I’ve lived in.
“My experiences taught me the importance of perseverance and I believe that the unique perspectives of refugees can bring tremendous value to the engineering community, both in terms of driving innovation and promoting social impact.”
Biniam Haddish, CEng
Biniam Haddish grew up in Eritrea, where national service is compulsory after high school – unless you pass the Eritrean Secondary Education Certificate Examination, when you’re entitled to attend university after military training and complete your service post-graduation.
This all sounds pretty straightforward, but the reality isn’t so clear cut, as Haddish explains: “After I completed my electrical and electronic engineering degree, I had to go back to service. After graduation, my plan was to look into further education or start my engineering career, but when I requested my certification, I was denied and told I was needed for further national service.
“I was determined to make something of my life, but saw no hope for progression, in fact the opposite – anyone spirited enough to question their rights immediately put their life in danger; in my case, just for continuing to demand my documentation.”
Thanks to the prison’s lax security, Haddish escaped and walked eight hours straight to get to the border. From here, he paid people smugglers to travel across Africa, eventually arriving in the UK where he requested asylum.
With no support system, a language barrier and unable to work, Biniam spent his time in libraries learning more about life in the UK. Once asylum was granted, he was then free to look for employment, but had no proof of his degree. He therefore began looking into further education, but applying to university through UCAS wasn’t an option due to his lack of proven qualifications.
“Thankfully, Bradford University invited me to a meeting where they tested my knowledge. Having proved I had a high understanding of electrical engineering, they offered me a place on their degree course, which was a glimmer of hope.”
Without indefinite right to remain, Haddish then struggled to get a place on a graduate scheme, even though companies were willing to offer him a place if the Home Office would look at his case. Sadly, their policy was not to respond to individual cases, which caused another delay to his career.
So, he took on short-term jobs until this was granted and he was able join National Grid’s graduate scheme.
“The sky was then the limit. I went from junior to senior engineer, from supporting control room through outage planning to leading the compliance of generators connected to the transmission network. Today, I manage the critical team within Electricity Connections, supporting the UK to achieve its net-zero target. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved; I hope it will show other refugees that great success is possible.”
Maksym Lushpenko, MSc
Maksym Lushpenko grew up in a small village in Ukraine. His electrical engineering degree nurtured an interest in programming, which, in time, led to the young engineer receiving an Erasmus Mundus scholarship that enabled him to study across Europe.
Lushpenko continued to live and work abroad after completing his education, starting with web developer DevOps and cloud engineer roles at multinationals, before moving to start-ups and eventually founding his own company, Brokee. This provides a tech platform with interactive tests that evaluate the day-to-day skills required of a systems engineer. Since the war in Ukraine began, he’s been offering Brokee’s services to companies and schools in his home country for free.
In 2021, Lushpenko and his partner decided to return to Ukraine for a year to spend time with his family.
“We really loved our time there and my American girlfriend even started working at a local office. Her parents, closely following the news, urged us to leave in February 2022, while my family thought everything would be fine.
“We took her parents’ advice and 10 days later bombs struck every region, including my hometown. For the next two months we travelled from city to city (15 in total), staying with friends, working remotely and constantly scrolling the news worried if our family and friends were safe.
“The US then allowed American families to sponsor Ukrainians, and we’ve been able to stay with my partner’s family, finally able to settle in one place for a while.”
Siarhei Palishchuk, MEng
Siarhei Palishchuk was born and raised in Belarus, later moving to St Petersburg, Russia, to study aerial photogrammetry at the A.F. Mozhaysky Military-Space Academy.
“This was greatly influenced by my father, a military man,” he says. “After the academy, I returned to Belarus, where I was obliged to serve in the army. This was 2010, and Lukashenko’s next election was coming up. A KGB agent came to our unit and tested the officers for trust, explicitly saying that our votes would be checked. He told us not to even think about participating in protests against the election.”
Palishchuk served for one year before leaving the military and returning to St Petersburg. “It was too dangerous to stay. A lot of my friends also left at this time.”
With two of these friends, he launched a geodesic company and undertook projects across Russia. This included geodetic control of deformations of submarine repair shops in Severodvinsk and engineering surveys to assess the consequences of floods in Tulun, Irkutsk.
However, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Palishchuk knew he had to leave because “my grandparents lived in Ukraine and I am half Ukrainian. Secondly, I’m a reserve officer and have a unique military education – only 50 people a year graduate with this – and would definitely get drafted.”
So, last year, Palishchuk sold his home and his share in the company, got a humanitarian visa to Poland, and moved to Wroclaw.
Here he had challenges setting up work due to language barriers and government regulations, but solved these by partnering with a local who had the necessary permits.
“My focus is on accurate measurements using industrial drones. I’m experimenting a lot with software and surveying technologies. I explain to designers, builders and maintainers how professional drone services can make their work easier.
“We’re also working on open-source technology that allows us to manipulate huge volumes of point clouds obtained by photogrammetry or laser scanning and plan to provide this as software as a service.”
AbdulRahman Sanhat, bEng
AbdulRahman Sanhat came to the UK from the Middle East with little English and big hopes of becoming an engineer. However, as an asylum seeker he had many challenges to overcome before he could start an engineering degree.
“The first barrier was language, as you need a certain level of proficiency in English to be enrolled on a UK engineering course, so I worked hard to improve this,” he explains. “The second was a lack of knowledge on how to navigate the UK’s higher education system. I didn’t know anything about the application process, which made things very tough.
“The third barrier was recognition of my existing qualifications. Because I studied abroad, some admission departments weren’t able to determine the UK equivalent grade and so I had to request a statement of comparability from the UK National Information Centre for global qualifications and skills.”
After gaining refugee status, he studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Salford, graduating with a first, and now works as a stress engineer at Airframe Designs.
Having experienced the challenges refugees face accessing education in the UK, Sanhat wanted to help other displaced people secure university offers and, during his time at Salford, helped 20 people gain places.
He also began volunteering with Student Action for Refugees as an equal access activist, and now works to break down the barriers between refugees and higher education through mentoring, improving practices and raising awareness of experiences refugees face trying to enter higher education.
“Refugees deserve to have fair access to higher education just like any other person. Education should be a right, not a privilege,” he says.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.