Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Conversation with Dr. Simret Beraki

Issayas: Can you tell us briefly about yourself?

Simret: I was born in Asmara, Eritrea. When my mother was six months pregnant with me, my father, like many fathers at that time, had to leave his family and join the EPLF (Eritrean People's Liberation Front) to free Eritrea. My mom had been a housewife, and transformed into a working mom to raise five children on her own. When my two oldest siblings reached adulthood they had to leave the country as well, and by chance my big brother ended up in Sweden. Six years after his arrival, he and my mom decided that my older brother and I would be better off if we joined my big brother so that we could have a better future.

We attempted to reach Sweden through Poland, which at the time seemed problem free. Unfortunately, when we arrived in Poland, Sweden was not accepting refugees through Poland and all the borders where closed. As every refugee, we had to stay in Poland, hoping to go to Sweden eventually. After almost two years of waiting, Sweden accepted our asylum application since we were underage, and we were allowed to join our big brother in Sweden. I learned Swedish in one and a half years and started my first Swedish class in high school. Afterwards, I went to Stockholm’s University and my major was molecular biology and chemistry. In 2003 I started my PhD study, and I defended my thesis in 2008. In 2009 I moved to California for my first postdoc position at Stanford University, Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neurosciences.

Simret wearing her Dr's ( Doctor of Philosophy) hat on November 2008
at the City Hall in Stockholm, Sweden. The event was organized by
the Karolinska Institutet in the City Hall.

Issayas: How was life in Poland? Were there any Eritreans at that time?

Simret: Life in Poland was hard, the toughest time in my life. There were other Eritreans but they were all adults, I was only 13 years old and my brother was 15 years old when we arrived in Poland. I always felt like an outsider because there were no Eritreans my age. We didn’t go to school, and basically had nothing to do. Since we were the first refugees in Poland, they didn’t know how to deal with us. I learned the language by interacting with the locals. This is in the beginning of 1990, when Poland became free from the Soviet Union and the majority of the people had never met a black person. It was extremely intriguing time of my life.

Issayas: How were you able to speak Swedish in a year and half?

Simret: Thinking back, I don’t even understand how that happened. The first year in high school was hard, it was not only the language that was new to me but all other subjects, as such chemistry. physics, technology, biology etc, all was new to me. Thankfully, I met really nice class mates that were there for me, and my big brother helped me a lot. In addition, I was brilliant in mathematics, which improved my confidence, whenever it was hard I was confident that it was due to my language difficulties, not that I was less intelligent than others.

Issayas: When were you in Eritrea last time?

Simret: I was in Eritrea in 2003, just after I graduated from college. I took a 3 month vacation and stayed at home with my parents in Asmara. I’m extremely attached to my family; I call home to Eritrea every other week and see them every other year in Sweden.

Issayas: You work at Stanford Institute for Neuro Innovation and Translational Neuroscience as a resarch associate. What is neuro innovation and translational neuroscience?

Simret: Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neuro-sciences (SINTN) investigates the function of the brain and spinal cord at the molecular, cellular, and behavioral level, as well as the pathological processes underlying nervous system failure following injury or neurologic and psychiatric diseases. Based on this knowledge, the aim is to develop new techniques that influence the function of the nervous system, which can eventually translate into therapeutic approaches for people with disorders of the nervous system.

Issayas: Any advice to young people about succeeding in the West?

Simret: Know your potential; do not be afraid to try different things to find what you are passionate about. Be eager for knowledge; the more knowledgeable person you become the more power and respect you receive. Lucky for me, my big brother knew my potential before I knew had one, even when everybody else was telling me I would not succeed. He told me to go for it. Be supportive to yourself and others.

Issayas: Simret, thank you for your time and sharing your experience with us.

Simret: You're welcome.