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Portrait — How does a mathematics student and aspiring forensic scientist end up working with victims of torture? Ahlam Chemlali, a master’s student from the University of Copenhagen, has fumbled, changed course and trusted her gut feeling. And along the way, this saved her life.
One morning in 2012, Ahlam Chemlali is sitting at the waterfront in Benghazi, Libya eating her lunch.
She has gone to Libya to collect data. Ahlam is writing her thesis as part of the new master’s programme for health professionals at the University of Copenhagen and is documenting how widespread torture is in the North African country after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
“I had to write home to Denmark every day and say I was fine, keep my meeting schedule and stay at the hotel. But I was restless, and my intuition told me to go out so I called my local logistics man and asked if he could find a place where I could eat,” she says.
Tibesti Hotel is located down towards a large lagoon that leads on to Benghazi’s industrial port and from there, on to the Mediterranean Sea. Ahlam is sitting on the other side of the lagoon and is eating a kebab as she spots a column of smoke. Soon, she can see flames and hear shots. Her secure hotel has been attacked.
Five years later, Ahlam Chemlali invites us to DIGNITY’s premises in an anonymous office building on Bryggervangen street in the less fashionable part of Østerbro out near the Helsingør motorway. She has been on more than 45 missions since the first one in Libya, and she has become a strong voice in the debate over human rights and torture at home. But she has not invited us over to share her war stories.
When Ahlam lectures about her work and her missions to students, they often ask her what they should study to get to work with what she does. And she reckons that the answer to this question contains an important lesson. It was not career planning, neither was it a noble ambition to fight for human rights that, after high school, had Ahlam Chemlali selecting her higher education programme.
"It was not quite me to wear rubber boots and use clinical chainsaws, getting sprayed."
“At high school I was heavily influenced by
Ahlam Chemlali applied for the bioanalyst programme at the Metropol university college in Copenhagen. While her fellow students looked for jobs in the pharmaceutical industry, Ahlam would specialize in forensic science. Here, she gradually found out that there was a long way from her conception of detective work and investigation teams to the real world’s long days of DNA analyses.
“It is a very peculiar environment, the world of forensics. It’s exciting that they let the dead ‘tell their story’, and I was fascinated by the human body and anatomy – but the days are very similar and there is not much interaction with other people,” she says.
After a half-year internship at a London mortuary – where Ahlam found out that it was not quite her “to wear rubber boots and use clinical chainsaws, getting sprayed,” she changed direction.
Ahlam wanted to get away from the clinical environment and – atypical for her study programme – took an elective subject in Global Health. As a part of her bachelor project, she organised a trip to Ghana herself, where she helped local NGOs host workshops and do HIV tests for the populace in small villages.
“If you were to point to a turning point in my career, it was probably coming to Ghana,” she says. “The core theme of the trip was health – but I learned that health is not just health. It is also human rights, fragile states, unequal access to services, gender discrimination, politics.”
The trip to Ghana gave Ahlam that meeting with living, breathing people that she had missed at the laboratory and the mortuary, and at the same time it opened her eyes to how complex it was to help individual women and children out in the villages. For example, how difficult it could be preventing HIV in rural communities where the chief deliberately ignored information and help because it came from her – a woman.
Ahlam was angered by the injustice – “socially indignant,” she says – but she knew neither what to do with her indignation nor what to do when she finished her education. On the other hand, she was sure she had to know more:
“Ghana pushed me for something with a global perspective, and I felt that it required the insight from other subjects to move on.”
Back in Copenhagen, she heard of a new health programme which the University of Copenhagen was starting up, and this proved to fit her searching, interdisciplinary, approach.
Looking back, Ahlam does not think it was at all bad that she was admitted to the very first class in the healthcare master’s programme.
“Things were not set into a firm foundation yet, and you could move your master’s degree in the direction you wanted.”
She was a bit like the odd one out on the team. The average age was 38 (she was 22), and her fellow students were head nurses, researchers and heads of department who had jobs and careers and knew what to use their education for. Ahlam didn’t. But she exploited the loose structure to the full:
My idea was that if I were to work with health in Africa, I needed to know the context. So I made my own curriculum.
“I shopped around and supplemented human rights courses in Law with social medicine in Anthropology. I had subjects in African studies about fragile African states where the other students could not understand what I was doing there. ‘Are you in the wrong place?’ they asked, and I replied ‘No, I just need the subjects for the next couple of months’. I think there’s a common thread in everything I do, but people cannot necessarily see that. But my thought was that if I want to work with health in Africa, I had to know the context. So I made my own curriculum.”
Ahlam’s curriculum also included an intensive course in international diplomacy. Her bachelor had given her first-hand experience with the health work in small, isolated Ghanaian villages, but she had limited insight into another end of the spectrum – the political and diplomatic work that regulates global health efforts. She therefore applied for an internship at the Danish UN Mission in Geneva, which is responsible for Denmark’s relationship with UN-based organizations in the city.
“Now I had come from the village in Africa to the inner circles of the world’s humanitarian capital. And it touched a nerve that you could work internationally with human rights and major humanitarian crises without losing your healthcare background. But I missed the tangible, practical aspects.”
The bridge between the two poles, the global and the local, the geopolitical and the encounter with people who needed help, she found back at home in Denmark.
During her studies, Ahlam had come across the Danish Rehabilitation and Research Center for Torture Victims (now renamed DIGNITY), a self-governing and politically independent organization that originated in Amnesty International in the 1970s.
“It was founded by doctors, the core is healthcare, and it works to rehabilitate the victims of violence and torture and help get them back to real life. It believes that there is a need for a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to cope with the task. So I wrote to them and asked if we could do a cooperation on a project.
"Meeting people is what motivates me. Getting out of the white coat and the clinical conditions and meeting people wherever they are. I cannot just sit around, reading books ..."
The answer was that there was room for her to do her thesis with them. They had two suggestions: She could help complete a project where they already had collected the data: Or she could go to one of the world’s hotspots – in the wake of a civil war and NATO bombings, and where there was the suspicion of the widespread use of torture – and collect the data yourself. Ahlam chose Libya.
It was instinct that had her defying safety recommendations that day in Benghazi, and when she looks back, she can see what fed that instinct. That she probably had noticed some of the Toyota trucks – the favorite vehicle of the militias – about to swarm around the hotel. And that she had been aware that an event for international diplomats the day before had made the hotel an attractive target for terrorists.
6 turning points in Ahlam Chemlali’s career
The TV series: The crime series CSI – where heavily armed and rather athletic forensic detectives clear up crimes – inspired Ahlam Chemlali to sign up as a bioanalyst at Metropol in 2006.
The mortuary: An internship at a London mortuary in 2008 taught her that she would rather work with the living – and prevent death.
Ghana: An elective in Global Health sends Ahlam to Ghana in 2009, where she, in her own words, “got a global perspective” and also had her eyes opened to the complex political, economic and human contexts that affect people’s health in a country.
The experiment: Ahlam starts her first year of the newly started healthcare master’s programme as a Master of Health Science UCPH in 2010.
UN mission: An internship at the Danish UN mission in Geneva in 2011 puts Ahlam on track for work on human rights in an international context.
DIGNITY: Ahlam gets a student job and is able to write her thesis at DIGNITY – the Danish Institute Against Torture in 2012. She has since been on over 45 missions to document the use of torture in Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Uganda, Kenya, the Philippines, South Africa and Liberia.
For the next couple of days she lived with the locals until she managed to get a seat on a plane out of the country (which in itself was an effort because the militia controlled the airport and were busy packing the planes with family members).
“In Denmark they were amazed at how calm I was. Personally, I took it as a kind of test or trial. I found out that I could handle that kind of work – and it was important for me to be there and talk about it afterwards.”
Ahlam started taking part in Danish television programmes such as Deadline on DR2, where she talked about the situation in Libya. She worked on-and-off in the country until 2014, when the Civil War flared up again, Islamic State entered the country, and DIGNITY had to interrupt their work. It hurts that she cannot do anything and that the media seems to have forgotten the conflict.
“Right now it’s insane what’s going on. In DIGNITY we have had to put our projects on standby, because it’s so dangerous, but I am being kept informed by friends and informants. The situation has resulted in a refugee crisis that the media talk about, but they do not cover the root causes, such as the unstable situation in Libya. ”
Ahlam submitted her PhD in 2012 and has since then worked for DIGNITY as a Programme Manager. She has been on more than 45 missions to document torture and organised violence in countries including Sierra Leone, Liberia, Jordan, Uganda and Bangladesh.
Along the way, she has seen things that have deeply affected her. In Liberia, she helped out during the Ebola epidemic, which ravaged a country already crippled by a brutal civil war.
When she looks back, she sees the huge difference between her work now and the previous studies and internships at the mortuary in London:
“Meeting people is what motivates me. Getting out of the white coat and the clinical conditions and meeting people wherever they are. I cannot just sit around, reading books …”
“Because it is not just numbers, statistics, figures in a report – because a human being crops up behind the numbers. You come down and see that it’s a person, like me, with the same hopes and the same dreams. It humanises the work. And it makes things much more meaningful to get out and see reality instead of just sitting here in Bryggervangen street.”
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Ahlam Chemlali still watches CSI, but she does not miss the lab work.
“I feel I’m in the right place. Now I work interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. In our teams we have doctors, sociologists, anthropologists, social workers, researchers … When you work with complex issues like violence and rehabilitation of torture victims, it requires a pluralistic, academic approach. Global challenges like the refugee crisis require cooperation between migration experts, political scientists, anthropologists … it’s not just economic and political issues.”
And now we get to the points that Ahlam wants to emphasise when students ask her how they can get to work with what she does.
There is not one path of study or experience to get yourself to work within a field like hers, it requires an interdisciplinary approach, and there are many paths. She herself has not had a plan for her education and career. She has gone with her curiosity and her gut feeling. She has changed direction, changed programme, hesitated, fumbled and gambled.
Along the way, she has learned what it is that motivates her and what it is that she wants to work with. And it worries her that students now – as she sees it – do not get the same opportunities as she did:
“I think it’s sad to see how the Danish Study Progress Reform is transforming the university into a sausage factory. Very few people at this centre knew what to do when they were 18 or 19 years old. It is important that students can immerse themselves in what interests and drives them – and not just in the labour market. You do not necessarily also get to try out the real world from completing your study in the standard time. My education took almost seven years, including studies abroad and internships, and I only think it has benefited me, both professionally and personally.”