This is the story of Saeed Azizi, who left Afghanistan 25 years ago. Now facing an uncertain future in Italy, he is hoping to do a PhD in physics and continue his research career in Europe.
Azizi isn't afraid of the future, even though it is uncertain. On the contrary, he considers himself lucky, because he is one of over 1,000 students to attend the Postgraduate Diploma Programme at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary.
Azizi left Afghanistan 25 years ago with his family, taking shelter in Iran where he gained a degree in neuroscience and machine learning. Despite the difficulties of living in Iran, a passion for physics pushed Azizi to graduate and to take advantage of the chance to participate in the ICTP's Postgraduate Diploma Programme for students from disadvantaged countries. Through an ICTP grant he was able to take the next step in his academic journey and, he hopes, study for a PhD.
From 'the lowest level of society' to advanced physics
"We left Afghanistan when I was four years old," says Azizi. "The Taliban had taken Mazar-i-Sharif and were soon to take the capital. [In Iran] we didn't have the right to go to school; we were immigrants, the lowest level of society."
"We couldn't choose what to study at university or where. It was even harder for me. I wanted to study atomic and nuclear physics but I couldn't because it was considered too sensitive a field."
During his specialization in Iran, Azizi studied advanced microscopy: "really modern technology that uses a good component of machine learning to acquire information on biological samples." The field requires expensive tools and advanced technology used in important studies such as the search for a coronavirus vaccine, Azizi explains.
"After studying solid state physics and specializing in photonics, I came to ICTP. I took courses in quantitative life sciences, focusing on computational methods and machine learning applied to life sciences."
'Kabul is like a battlefield'
Azizi returned to Kabul six years ago for one year to participate in a UN program teaching in a school: "I felt like I belonged to that land and those people," he says.
"I taught computer science, and we had good resources and facilities, computers for the students, nice classes. But there were always police at the entrance to prevent terrorist attacks. Often, explosions were heard near the school or my apartment. Kabul is like a battlefield. One month after I went back to Iran, there was an explosion on the road I took every day, at the same time I took it."
When asked about the future, Azizi says he has been in Italy for a year, and so he has lost the right to return to Iran because his residence permit expired.
"I'm in a stalemate, I don't know where I'm going to go," he admits. "Luckily my study period was extended by three months to allow me to find a place for a doctorate, hopefully in Europe, to continue my research career."