A story about hope

             

Written by Amir Abouelrous, Egypt

My name is Amir Abouelrous, I am an Egyptian citizen and I currently live in Cairo. I would like to share with you my story and hope that it will be inspiring to students in South Africa. Science has always been my passion since I was a kid. In 2011, I graduated with a BSc in Geophysics from Ain Shams University. Even though Geophysics is an interesting science, I always have had a passion for Physics. I wanted to know how the universe works. After graduation, I couldn’t find a well-paying job and decided that I should pursue postgraduate studies in Physics. I started my search for Physics scholarship overseas but never had any luck.

Few months after graduation, I had a turning point in my life. While I was having lunch with my family, we were watching a film called “Taare Zameen Par”. The moment the film ended, I decided I wanted to help people live their dreams. I didn’t know anything about motivational speaking at that time, but I knew, in my heart, this is what I wanted to do in my life.

The first years in South Africa

My father had always considered South Africa a stable and beautiful country, since he spent some time there in the late nineties. That affected my decision that South Africa would be my next destination to pursue my vision of studying Physics and to become a motivational speaker, somehow. I obtained a tourist visa to South Africa valid for 30 days and I arrived at OR Tambo international airport on 14 May 2012. My first night in Cape Town was difficult. I didn’t know if I will ever see my family again and I didn’t know if I am going to succeed in South Africa.

I struggled with few odd jobs here and there and my family assisted me financially as well. During that time, I got myself a laptop and started studying Physics and Mathematics. I did that for two reasons: one was to keep learning Physics, two and most importantly, to get busy living. I had to keep myself busy learning, pursuing my vision, or life will be meaningless. During my stay in South Africa, I used to study every day and I never stopped, because if I did, I would lose the motivation to pursue my dreams and eventually, the motivation to stay alive.

After about two years, I decided I have had enough struggling and wanted to live a better life. My tourist visa had expired so I went to the Department of Home Affairs to assist me with renewing it. I had the risk of being arrested but I was positive that someone will help me with the renewal. Unfortunately, I was arrested since I had overstayed and was sent to the central police station in Cape Town and then transferred to Pollsmoor prison for deportation. I have to say that this was perhaps, the most difficult day in my life. I travelled to South Africa to study Physics and contribute to the country as a motivational speaker and here I am, in prison, waiting to be deported back to Egypt.

After 24 days in prison, I was then transferred to Lindela detention center in Krugersdorp. I remember vividly, on a rainy Tuesday, it was lunch time and we had to stand in a long queue in the rain waiting for lunch to be served, it was a very tough day for me. My shoes were torn and I had to hold them together with a string, my shirt was old, and I was very hungry. In the middle of all this, I was asking myself the famous question: is it possible that I will ever get out of here and study Physics at university? I had no clear answer but deep inside my heart, I knew that, somehow, it is possible. Two weeks later, I was released with the assistance of a lawyer and was given a 30 days asylum document. Few months later, I obtained refugee status valid for four years, and in Johannesburg now, I decided it was about time I should pursue my dream of studying Physics at a university.

In early 2015, I went to apply for the postgraduate Physics program at the University of Johannesburg which, unfortunately, was rejected. Since I had a BSc in Geophysics and wanted to switch to Physics, I was told that I need to study undergraduate Physics from first year. This came as a shock to me because I never imagined starting all over. Nonetheless, I kept trying to convince the Physics postgraduate coordinator that Physics is my passion and I will work hard to prove myself, but my request was still declined. I didn’t know what to do, I felt like all my hard work and struggle was gone in vain.

But then I remembered why I travelled to South Africa in the first place. I wanted to study Physics and become a motivational speaker, that is my goal and that is my vision, so I decided to hold on to my vision. Few days later, I met a friend who suggested that I should approach the University of the Witwatersrand and give it a try. I do remember very well, the first time I visited the University of the Witwatersrand, I fell in love with it and I knew that, deep in my heart, this is where I will study Physics. I approached the Physics postgraduate coordinator, at the time he was Professor Daniel Joubert who was a very positive and friendly person. I introduced myself and asked him that I would love to apply for the postgraduate Physics program. He didn’t immediately say yes or no but it seemed like he wanted to offer me a chance. I took that opportunity and visited his office so many times until he accepted my request.

Dreams coming true

Finally, after four years of struggle, I was offered the opportunity to study Physics at one of the best universities in South Africa. I remember my first day in class, it was in the second week of February 2016 and exactly two years ago I was sleeping on the floor in Pollsmoor prison, waiting to be deported back to Egypt, I was shocked at how far I went. That made me realize the following fact: any person, from any background, from any race, has the potential to achieve his/her dreams and goals if and only if they are willing to hold on to them and fight for them every day without giving up even if there seems to be no reason to hope. Always remember, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things and no good thing ever dies.

My first year at the University of the Witwatersrand was very difficult and critical in my life. To put it simply, I was afraid that I would fail. I had no plan B, no safety net and failure was not an option. That fear drove me to work hard and ask for help. We all know hard work is key to success, but asking for help is just as equally important. I have to say that I am very fortunate for having a great community of positive, friendly and well educated friends and staff. I had difficulties in some Mathematics and Physics modules and was able to overcome that with the help of my friends and staff members. This is why I believe that no one can succeed in any field of life without some help from positive and professional people. In March 2017, I graduated with an Honours degree in Physics.

Next, I started with the Master’s program in Physics and during that time I was struggling financially to pay rent and I had to borrow money from family and friends. An important question consumed my mind at the time, how can I avoid paying rent? As I was thinking, a great idea crossed my mind, the University of the Witwatersrand. It was already like a home to me since I was studying Physics there and most of my good friends were there as well. Actually it was the only good thing (besides hope, of course) I had in my life at that point. Outside the university, I was a foreigner with no money and no proper study visa.

In May 2017, I moved to the University of the Witwatersrand which has now officially become my actual home, I couldn’t be happier. The very first thing I did was joining the Wits fitness and wellness centre. Working out was and will always be a fundamental aspect of my life. Over the years, working out has shaped my character, boosted my confidence and I truly believe that it has given me strength in the face of adversity. The first few weeks after I moved to the University of the Witwatersrand were very scary. I was afraid that people may find out that I was living at the university and I may get suspended. A good friend suggested I should sleep at the Muslim prayer facility which was very quiet and safe. I started my new life at the Muslim prayer facility, which became my new home.

Every day in the morning, I would fold my blanket, change my clothes, brush my teeth, and head to my office in the Physics building. Eating was a big challenge because I couldn’t cook in the kitchen of the Physics building since that may attract attention so I had to eat food that doesn’t require cooking. Plain brown bread, raw eggs and bananas was all I can afford. I couldn’t drink raw eggs in the kitchen or the office so the only place that was left is the toilets. It was a disgusting thing to do but that was the only option I had and my mind-set at the time was about survival. This is something sometimes we have to go through in life, to survive in difficult situations and keep moving forward until circumstances change and opportunities arise. This was my daily routine for the next 18 months until I left South Africa in December 2018 back to Egypt.

Back to Egypt

In December 2018, I returned back to Egypt and I did the final submission for my Master’s dissertation and graduated in July 2019. When I left South Africa, I signed a form that makes me undesirable from entry to South Africa for the next five years since I had overstayed my tourist visa by many years.

During the second year in the Master’s program, I decided to switch my research interest to quantum gravity. In early 2018, I started working on quantum gravity during my spare time. I am still working on it now and most probably for the next few decades. Right now, I am not enrolled at any PhD program, so I have to work on my own. Conducting research on our own is extremely important. The ability to know exactly what we are looking for and how to find information about it. This doesn’t mean we can work independently of others, but we need to develop the ability to know how to find information about our research areas without the need of constant guidance from others.

Currently I work at a telecommunications company besides working out and research in Physics. My vision is to hopefully, find a solution to the problem of quantizing gravity and to motivate and inspire others to pursue their dreams relentlessly. 

Motivating others

Ever since I arrived in South Africa, I have been pursuing my vision of becoming a motivational speaker. Even though I faced countless rejections at schools and universities, my strong burning desire drove me to try again and again. The few opportunities I had gave me the motivation to keep going. Most notably, I would like to sincerely thank the former principal of Johannesburg secondary school Mr Jason Arthur for allowing me to give motivational talks to his students. Mr Arthur welcomed me to his school and offered me the opportunity to motivate his students whenever they had a free class. I will never forget this kind man.

Last year, I read an inspirational story about Ali Dorani, a young Iranian man whom art has saved his life during the four years of imprisonment at the detention camp of Manus Island. Immediately after reading Ali’s inspirational story, I wrote a story about how Physics saved my life during my stay in South Africa and up until writing this very sentence and started sending it to universities and organisations in South Africa. The number of emails I had send up until now have exceeded 3000 emails. I will never stop sending my story because tomorrow the sun will rise, who knows what the tide could bring.

From the bottom of my heart, I would love to thank all the individuals whom have assisted me during this long journey. I truly believe that we can never achieve anything in life without the help and assistance of positive and friendly individuals. There is no self-made success; greatness is achieved by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Which Physics topic do you know?

Over the years I have had to correct so many people who think that people who study physics are physicians or that getting a PhD in physics means that we will all become lecturers or professors. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with becoming an academic, heck I want to be an academic but there are those who go into industry and become consultants for many companies out there. The one thing that I, however, have found to be the most annoying is the assumption that when we study physics then we know everything about string theory, the big bang theory, that when you do nuclear physics then you can make a bomb (seriously, anyone can find that on Google… I think) and have all watched the movie Interstellar. Honestly, it took me a week to finish that movie and when I finally did, I regretted ever giving it a second of my life. Just because we are physics postgraduates/graduates doesn’t mean we are weird and spend all of our time studying, we have hobbies too that don’t involve physics. Anyways back to the topic at hand, there are many fields within physics and I will introduce you to some of these through people who are actually doing them and at the same time break the stereotype that we are all nerds who are constantly studying. 

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Meet Tanita Ramburuth-Hurt, currently doing her MSc in Astronomy & Astrophysics. Her topic is in dark matter and diffuse radio emission in spiral galaxies. Basically, radio emission in the form of the “WMAP/Planck haze” has been detected to exist within the Milky Way. If this haze is a product of dark matter annihilations, a similar emission should be detectable in spiral galaxies that are similar to the Milky Way. Her research uses galaxy simulation software to predict the flux, morphology and spectrum of the dark matter haze of spiral galaxies with the intention of using the MeerKAT telescope to compare our simulations with observations. She chose to do a postgraduate degree in Physics because she loves maths, physics, and space. She finds it beautiful that we are able to understand the universe in the language of mathematics through physics. She plans to continue and do her PhD after she completes her MSc. She has recently achieved her black belt in Combat Tang Soo Do, and spends a lot of time training for tournaments. She is also on the Wits Sport Council and sits on the Wits SRC, advocating for the empowerment of women through sport and for the improvement of mental health through sport. Her advice to other postgraduate students or those who plan to pursue a postgraduate career in Physics is that you should take all the opportunities you can. She had the privilege of attending the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany this year all because she took the opportunity to apply.

Meet Dr Shell-may Liao, she is an experimental high energy/particle physicist. She completed her PhD in July 2019 at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) where she was part of the WITS Institute for Collider Particle Physics (ICPP). Her research focused on searching for new physics in association with missing transverse energy in the diphoton decay channel with the ATLAS detector at CERN. The search included searching for dark matter particles. Physics has been a passion of hers from a very young age. She was inspired by her father who is a theoretical physicist. He made her see the universe through his eyes by sharing his physics knowledge with her throughout most of her life. This triggered her curiosity in understanding our universe through physics concepts. Does she plan to continue with physics after her PhD? “Absolutely! I am currently working as a lecturer in the physics department at the University of eSwatini in my country of origin. I also plan to pursue a post-doc in the next years to come in my field of research.” She loves playing board games, she spends some weekends with friends enjoying game nights. She also thoroughly enjoys the outdoors, loves hiking and running. She roller blades every now and then with her siblings. She also spends some of her leisure time doing some event organizing and decorating. Her advice to other post-graduate students is to always stay positive and make sure what they are doing is what they really have a passion for. “At the end of the day, no one can ever put 100% effort in something they do not truly enjoy doing. Studying physics is not a walk in the park, so try to have an efficient routine. That is, make sure that you work hard, but also sleep enough. Do not forget to have a social life too, this really helped me to refresh when work became overwhelming. It also does not hurt to exercise every now and then in order to refresh the body and mind. Go for a run and reset!”

Meet Nokwazi Mphuthi, she is currently doing a PhD on a collaborative project between Wits University and the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO). The projects is looking into using structured light to improve the efficiency of a laser ranging system currently being developed by SARAO in collaboration with NASA. She did not necessarily choose physics but it chose her. Her background is in Geomatics Engineering (Land Surveying). She was fascinated by the project itself and did not want to miss out on the opportunity to be part of it. This led her to join physics under the structured light group. Does she plan to continue with physics after her PhD? “Yes, I plan to continue with structured light and the Laser ranging project to see what other interesting discovered we can derive from it.” Outside the physics world, she has a passion for cooking and trying out different recipes. “If I was not into science, I was probably going to be a chef. I love it and that is what I spend most of my weekends doing.” Unfortunately, she does not have any advice for fellow postgraduate students as everything is still a learning curve for her too but she can express what she has learned throughout her PhD Journey. “I have learned that we are all capable of more than we think. We just need to drive and push in the right direction. I have also learned to be kind to myself. I don’t have to be the best, I just need to be good at what I do. And that my only competition is myself.”

Meet Dr Siphephile Ncube, a postdoctoral fellow in Condensed Matter Physics. She worked in Nanoelectronics and Spintronics; Low-temperature electronic transport on carbon-based nanomaterials. She is currently working on the magnetic and electronic properties of Cr based bulk materials. She chose to do physics because it presented a good challenge. She fell in love with numbers at a tender age and found her way to the exciting world of physics. Does she plan on continuing with physics after her PhD? “Yes definitely. I am addicted!” I mean she already a postdoctoral fellow. When she is not busy fulfilling her addiction she enjoys reading, gardening, exploring, Game of Thrones 😉 and like any other woman, she loves shopping. What advice does she have for other postgraduate students or those who plan to pursue a postgraduate career in Physics? “Physics is related to many fields and has led to what the world calls “Civilization”. It is a fundamental entity of human life and the future of advances in technology leading to the vast development of many economies. Find your passion and reach for the stars!  Perseverance and resilience pay off in the end.”

Well, I hope that this was somewhat informative in terms of what people doing physics are up to. There is a post by Dominic Walliman that I came across that discusses the map of physics. I found this rather useful because even I myself never really knew how all of these topics connected together. This paints a beautiful picture of how physics comes together and also shows how many aspects/topics are combined to make one field. As seen in the map of physics image, lets all not get stuck in the chasm of ignorance and continue to think that physics is all about the big bang theory or nuclear bombs, there is a much more than we can imagine out there. 

I can’t speak for everyone else but yes I am weird and a nerd but I am a super cool nerd who has a life outside of the physics. A special thank you to the above-mentioned ladies for taking time off their busy schedules and answering my questions.