A voice for women in Afghanistan

Environmental engineer Fatima Akbari is the second Hilde Domin scholarship holder at TU Darmstadt

2023/02/10 by

With the support of the DAAD programme, Fatima Akbari has been able to start her doctoral degree in Darmstadt. TU Darmstadt's International Office supports at-risk academics like this young woman from Afghanistan.

The impressions are still very fresh in her mind. Fatima Akbari has been living in Darmstadt and conducting research at the Technical University since October. Everything is new: the city, the culture, the people, the language. However, the young woman from Afghanistan has found her place at the university. “The support from the university is excellent,” she acknowledges. The International Affairs Office was her anchor point during her first weeks there.

Fatima Akbari had already been in contact with the Central Coordination Office for Refugee Integration (ZKF) and the Welcome Centre before coming to Germany and Darmstadt. Staff there not only helped with the important requirements such as admission to the Hilde Domin programme, but also put her in touch with other international students and doctoral candidates in Darmstadt. “That was so helpful,” says Fatima, 34. At “TUtor International” or “Big Sister” she met, among others, women who had had similar experiences and who were able to help her with tips for studying and living in a country that was still foreign to her. “This has made starting as a doctoral candidate much easier,” says Fatima Akbari.

The purpose of the Hilde Domin programme of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) is to enable academics who are threatened by war or persecution in their home countries to continue their academic careers. The young engineer Fatima Akbari is now able to continue her career in Darmstadt with TU Professor Susanne Lackner in the Department of Water and Environmental Biotechnology at the IWAR Institute. During the coronavirus pandemic, Professor Lackner made a name for herself with her research on the detection of COVID-19 viruses in waste water. As a doctoral supervisor, she is now supervising Fatima Akbari's doctoral thesis on the modelling of waste water processes.

“I am fascinated by the subject”

Working in a team of eleven scientists, the Hilde Domin scholarship recipient is analysing and researching the effects and regulation of nitrous oxide (N₂O), also known as laughing gas (nitrous oxide), in waste water. N₂O is part of the global nitrogen cycle and is considered a contributor to climate change if it is released into the atmosphere. “I am fascinated by the subject,” she says.

Fatima Akbari is familiar with the academic environment; there is not too much of a difference from her former alma mater. The young woman from Kabul holds a Bachelor's degree in applied chemistry and a Master's in environmental engineering from the prestigious University of Tehran in Iran. After completing her studies, the newly-qualified engineer returned to her home country in 2014 in order to gain professional experience. For eight years, she worked as a team leader for the United Nations Environment Programme and as a consultant for the Swiss non-profit organisation Zoï Environment Network. Fatima Akbari has worked with science and the private sector on a number of internationally funded projects, often acting as the voice of Afghan women to the international community.

Commitment for human rights

She has travelled to Africa, Europe and Asia, and has also met with official institutions, the local population and – above all – girls and women in her own country as well to introduce them to topics such as environmental protection and awareness straightforwardly and at eye level. “I want to inspire people. I want to listen to their problems and ideas, and to help girls and women in particular to develop their skills in order to make their lives easier,” says Fatima, who is also committed to human rights.

Learning about different perspectives and gaining international and practical experience define her professional life. However, the desire to take on leading positions in the future and to be able to share in making decisions gave rise to the idea of a doctorate. A vision of the future that the radical Islamic Taliban put to an abrupt end with its renewed seizure of power in 2021. Fatima Akbari fled the country to Pakistan.

Dream of a doctorate

However, she had no intention of abandoning her dream of a doctorate, and so looked for new opportunities while she was in exile. She read about the Hilde Domin scholarship on the Internet, contacted the DAAD and then various universities and colleges. Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences and TU Darmstadt worked closely together to bring the young woman from Afghanistan to Germany. Her former employer Zoï also helped her on her way. Fatima Akbari spent six months in Bielefeld before being accepted for the Hilde Domin Programme at the TU.

She opted for Darmstadt because she wanted to carry out research at a renowned university. The fact that a professional young academic was applying for a scholarship as a doctoral candidate was also instantly evident to TU employee Aaron Szczerba. He forwarded the request via the International Office to the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and soon there was clear response from several sides to the effect that Fatima Akbari was to be accepted as a doctoral candidate. She feels very much at home with her new research team and Professor Lackner, and as a scholarship holder now has three years to pursue her academic career in peace.

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