When Mevludin met Yannick du Pont, Director of SPARK (formerly Youth Support former Yugoslavia), in Bosnia in 1994, his future prospects were looking pretty bleak. He was trapped in the midst of the Bosnian War, which had started a couple of years prior and did not show signs of letting up. Two years in, resources were becoming increasingly limited and even blocked.
As a young scientist, about to start his PhD when the war started and working as a Teaching Assistant at the University of Tuzla, Mevludin was thirsty for knowledge. He wanted to read, to study, to research, but the war compromised his education, and as such, his future and the future of his students too.
“It was a big surprise. Suddenly, in came the [SPARK] team, specialised in helping education institutions. It was a surprise to see young people coming to risk their lives to help you.”
At the time, SPARK was assisting universities in Bosnia and Herzegovina by writing project proposals alongside a team at the University of Amsterdam, offering computer courses and English language courses. While many students at the universities lacked these skills, Mevludin felt already competent in both areas. Instead, he ran into Yannick in the university corridor one day and decided to introduce himself.
“Needless to say how we in the Electrical Engineering Department of the University of Tuzla lacked in everything – new research papers, articles, books. I asked for these things, I gave SPARK the names of research institutions outside and they brought them!”
Over several months, the home-cooked Bosnian meals were exchanged for new research articles in the field of Applied Mathematics that were brought in the suitcases of staff returning to Bosnia from the Netherlands. Eventually, the university got access to email. The server was based in the Middle East somewhere and the dial-up could last for days, but Mevludin could assess it roughly every week. He got in touch with the University of Liege, in Belgium, to tell them about his research. His email was initially met with positivity, but quickly hesitations sprouted. Some people were fearful or mistrusting of his intentions coming from a war-torn country.
“Every time Yannick was in the Netherlands, he was calling them [University of Liege]. He was calling persistently, explaining who I was, that I was a very promising guy, that it is good to help people in my situation.”
After such an endorsement, and close to the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the University of Liege proposed that Mevludin come to visit for a few months, all expenses paid. He was overjoyed. Yet still his journey was paved with obstacles.
“I was not able to obtain a visa. I travelled to Zagreb in Croatia ten times, as that was the closest embassy, but they declined my visa without explanation.“
With the help of SPARK, the university put pressure on the Belgian Ministry of Interior, and reassured them that Mevludin was not coming to the EU to do harm or trouble, that he was simply a “knowledge-hungry guy”. Eventually, in 1996, Mevludin got his visa.
He went on to become the Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Liege, completing his Postdoctoral in the USA as a Fullbright Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. However, he says he would never have had the confidence to have achieved so much without the early support he received from SPARK.
“I don’t know how my life would be today if that didn’t happen. I needed to gain self-confidence, for someone to believe in me. Then the rest was up to me.”
But Mevludin wasn’t done yet. He wanted to transfer the knowledge he’d gained outside his country to the youth in Bosnia. Between 1996 and 2001, as well as 2007 and 2011, he taught as a Professor at the University of Tuzla (Department of Mathematics) in Bosnia. He supported many students during that time, with most choosing him to mentor them through their Masters theses. He felt proud to have been able to give something back but, as in many post-conflict regions, the institutions and infrastructure were still being rebuilt and he began to feel his own research stagnating as a result.
“It was my primary aim to stay in Bosnia and continuing to teach, but I realised I could not do high level research there.”
After returning to Belgium in 2001, conducting research around the world and winning an impressive array of scientific awards, Mevludin is now residing back in Bosnia, in his home town of Tuzla, working quietly as an independent researcher. He reflected on his past experiences, on his lifetime’s work, and we, at SPARK, are delighted to have played a small role in his success.