Office of Global Engagement

For Syrian Refugee Children, Scholars and Scientists Combine to Connect Research with Relief

April 15, 2016

Amid the festivities of Brown University’s graduation in May 2015, Dima Amso, associate professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, sat down for lunch next to Professor Beshara Doumani, director of Middle East Studies at the Watson Institute.

It was not serendipity, as Doumani first thought. Instead, Amso had attended several Middle East Studies events on Syria and was now seizing the opportunity to propose an unusual collaboration. Now, less than a year later, that collaboration has attained international proportions with a conference at Brown on April 8 and 9.

“Since 2011, many of us have been watching the situation in Syria with growing alarm — it’s a major crisis — and wondering, maybe privately, what we can do,” Doumani said. When Amso appeared at the lunch table, he said, “We got to talking and quickly established that we were both thinking about what we can do. Meeting with Dima was an unbelievable catalyst.”

The pair’s goal, now shared among a team of five brain science and Middle East experts at Brown, has been to learn how their scholarship and science could help people who are providing aid to refugee children from Syria and, perhaps, around the world. They have never presumed they know what to do. Instead their approach has been to engage with those who are already helping, to understand how they could contribute.

From the start it was clear to Amso, who studies how early life stress, such as living with socioeconomic disadvantage, can affect cognitive and behavioral development in children, that while many aspects of the underlying science are universal, the contexts in which she hopes to apply them are not. Her work mostly takes place in Providence, where stresses for many children are very real, but very different than those among Syria’s millions of refugees.

But Doumani, Joukowsky Family Professor of Modern Middle East History, focuses much of his scholarship on family and social history, particularly among Syrians and Palestinians. Moreover, the associate director in Middle East Studies, Sarah Tobin, was already working closely with Syrian refugee communities in Jordan, for instance to investigate how the reality of refugee life was being portrayed — and often skewed — in Western media.

During the fall, the group grew further to include Dr. Carl Saab, neuroscience and neurosurgery associate professor (research), who studies pain, which is a source and form of stress, and its effect on the brain. He already knew Doumani and Amso, so when she called, he needed no time to see how meaningful the effort could be.

“From the first words that she uttered I immediately recognized this would resonate with my scientific interests, but also I was born and raised in Lebanon, so I have seen humanitarian crises on a global scale,” Saab said.

The group also included third-year international relations concentrator Tala Doumani, Beshara Doumani’s daughter. Initially Tala was to shadow the team, but her previous experiences in working with Palestinian refugees and her academic work on international humanitarian organizations made her an active member. She had hoped to become involved with helping Syrian refugees as that crisis grew.

In January, the quintet took a 10-day fact-finding trip to Jordan to understand the urgent situation there firsthand and to open a dialogue with staff members of governmental and non-governmental organizations and the United Nations who were working with children both in refugee camps and in Jordanian host communities.

“We kind of went in saying, ‘What are the correct questions that we should be asking?’,” Tala Doumani said.

Their fieldwork was funded by Amso’s James S. McDonnell Scholar Award in Understanding Human Cognition.

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