Research under fire

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By Kiera Toffelmire

Mitchell Kosny was sitting in a city official’s office in Gaza when a bomb exploded outside the window.

It was September of 2005, and Kosny was in Khan unis. He was with city manager, Mohamad Al Agha, discussing the work he had done in Gaza as an international consultant for the Canadian Federation of Municipalities and his plan to improve governance in Gaza.

Alarmed, Kosny looked at Al Agha, who remained seated. “I think I should turn my attention to this, and you should probably leave,” Al Agha said, not a trace of panic in his voice.

On his last day of research in Gaza before returning to Canada, the urban and regional development prof at Ryerson returned to the hotel, packed his bags and headed towards the border.

But before he got there, the Israelis had already shut it down. Kosny was trapped. He was worried that if he couldn’t get out, he wouldn’t be able to lead a field trip to Amsterdam set to leave in a couple of days. His only option was to wait for an escape.

Every year, Ryerson professors travel into conflict-ridden areas to conduct research projects in their field of expertise. While Ryerson does not keep track of the number of professors researching abroad, according to Marsha Mikhail, the Office of International Affairs and International Liaison Officer, there are about 100 professors involved with international activity. Europe is the most popular destination for Ryerson profs conducting research. However a select few have ventured into developing countries, exposing themselves and their research to the dangers presented by political uprisings. While no Ryerson prof has been seriously harmed working overseas, their research is not nearly as lucky. From being postponed to flat out cancelled, political conflicts have wreaked havoc on some Ryerson profs’ projects. Sometimes destroying years of work.

Kosny had worked in Rafa, a city about one hour outside Gaza city, since 1998, devising a master plan to better organize the city’s governance while staying true to the region’s values. He worked with both local and international colleagues to promote gender equality and organize waste management. The project received about a million dollars worth of funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and last eight years.

One day during his commute from work in Rafa to the hotel in Gaza city, Kosny’s car was stopped by a mass mob of raging men. Dressed in green headbands and scarves, the men waved machine guns in the air shouting words in Arabic.

It suddenly dawned on Kosny that he had driven into the middle of a Hamas rally.

Kosny and his colleague kept calm and edged forward through the crowd. Despite the wild mob of angry Hamas members, Kosny said he didn’t feel nervous. “Feeling nervous doesn’t matter because you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time and nothing matters.”

He was in his high-security hotel in Gaza when the weight of the situation hit him.

One evening, Kosny sat alone eating dinner on his ocean-side terrace. As the sun set over Gaza city he noticed a vapor trail descending through the air. “I suddenly realized, that’s a fucking rocket,” said Kosny.

As the violence progressed, Kosny’s research in Gaza was placed on a five-year hiatus and he was unable to return to the country.

Though it slowed down his research, he continued the work from Canada. In the summer of 2007 Kosny made his last mission overseas to work on the Gaza governance project which for safety reasons had been moved west to Cairo. But since his escape, he has not been able to return to the Middle East and, because of the war crippling Gaza, the project was discontinued.

“Right now I don’t even know who is alive over there. I am of course disappointed,” said Kosny, his eyes focused on the ground. “But I do know that despite what’s left of the city, we altered a way of thinking. We left capacity. And that’s value.”

While other profs are spared watching years of work go down the drain, they still lose time when bombings derail their research schedules.

Sepali Guruge, an associate professor in the Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing, felt lucky to get the funding she needed to do research in her home land – Sri Lanka.

In February of 2008, Guruge embarked on the first of two trips to conduct research projects based on violence against women. The Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) gave Guruge $93,000 for her first project and $23,000 for the second project.

Before taking a shopping break one morning, Guruge squeezed in an interview with a patient at a nearby hospital. As she was about to leave, another patient wanted to talk.

She agreed, but the impromptu interview delayed her by 10 minutes.

Guruge hopped on the back of the three-wheel taxi she’d left waiting for her and headed towards the shop. Stuck in traffic, she began to grow impatient when, suddenly, a bomb exploded.

In seconds, the streets flooded with screaming civilians and armed police forces.

The bomb was planted in the shop Guruge was on her way to. Two women were killed. Had Guruge stuck to her original plan and interviewed only one person, she would have been in the shop at the time of the blast.

She spent the rest of the day assuring family members she was OK and she couldn’t resume her research until the chaos caused by the blast calmed down.

“It is an indescribable feeling when you’re standing feet away from potential death,” said aerospace engineering professor Zouheir Fawaz.

After hearing about the rising death toll caused by landmine explosions, Fawaz travelled to Lebanon to research and develop landmine detectors. Forced to flee the country in 2006, one week before war broke out between the Lebanese and the Israelis, Fawaz worked from Canada attempting to maintain a progressive project.

However, because of the war, their research team was cut in half and the project is on hiatus, or “life support” as Fawaz called it.

“I know that we helped save even one life, and that makes it all worth it,” Fawaz said. “I would go back in a heartbeat.”



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