Israel’s first Jordanian PhD wants to bring peace through water
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Israel’s first Jordanian PhD wants to bring peace through water

Desalination researcher Amer Sweity’s years at Ben-Gurion University put him in unique position to build bridges — and pipelines

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Amer Sweity in his lab at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev's campus in Sde Boker, Israel, May 18, 2015. (Renee Ghert-Zand/Times of Israel)
Amer Sweity in his lab at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev's campus in Sde Boker, Israel, May 18, 2015. (Renee Ghert-Zand/Times of Israel)

Amer Sweity lives at Midreshet Ben-Gurion in Sde Boker, a tiny community located some 50 kilometers south of Beersheba. He is a Negev desert pioneer, but not in the usual sense. Residing and conducting research at Ben-Gurion University’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, Sweity recently became the first Jordanian citizen to earn a doctoral degree from an Israeli university.

In fact, based on inquiries The Times of Israel made with several of Israel’s largest universities and the Council of Higher Education in Israel, it appears that Sweity, 34, is the first foreign national from any Arab country to have received a PhD in Israel.

Sweity, who received the BGU Rector’s Award for excellence upon the completion of his degree this past March, is an expert in desalination. His research focuses on the polyamide membranes used in the process of turning seawater into potable water. Specifically, he seeks to optimize the use of various chemicals that are added to the seawater to prevent scaling on the membranes.

“These chemicals can cause side effects. We want to see whether the chemicals decrease the membranes’ efficiency, or whether they create bacterial growth on the membranes,” said Sweity as he showed this reporter around the lab where he did his PhD research funded by Israel’s Water Authority.

“Also, 50 percent of the water used in the desalination process becomes recovery water and goes back into the sea. This recovery water has double the salt content and contains chemicals, and we need to see what effect this has on the microbial community,” he continued.

Amer Sweity received the Rector's Award for Excellence upon completing his PhD studies at Ben-Gurion Univesity of the Negev in March 2015. (Courtesy)
Amer Sweity received the Rector’s Award for Excellence upon completing his PhD studies at Ben-Gurion Univesity of the Negev in March 2015. (Courtesy)

Sweity’s interest in water research is not at all surprising given that his home country suffers from a severe water shortage.

According to the World Health Organization, Jordan has one of the lowest levels of water resource availability, per capita, in the world.

“The pressure from the Syrian refugees is making it even worse,” said Sweity about the nearly 1 million Iraqi and Syrian refugees who have crossed into Jordan because of the Syrian Civil War that has been raging since 2011.

In the Jordanian capital Amman, where Sweity’s family lives, water flows to people’s taps at home only once a week. “It’s like that even in the winter, and it’s been like that for around 20 years,” said Sweity.

‘It got to the point that I needed to fight with [my parents] about this. I really needed this experience. I knew that this kind of chance doesn’t come every day’

Although Sweity has applied for post-doctoral positions in Holland, Israel and several Arab countries, he said he is committed to returning before too long to Jordan to help increase water desalination efforts there. In particular, he’d like to be involved with the Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal Project, a major collaboration between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority backed by the World Bank to provide drinking water to Eilat and Aqaba and raise the level of the Dead Sea.

When Sweity completed his undergraduate degree in land and water management at The Hashemite University in Zarqa, Jordan, he knew he wanted to study desalination and that Israel was the best place to do this.

“Five desalination plants were built in Israel and that shifted everything for Israel in terms of water,” he said, referring to Israel’s solution to its historical water crisis.

His parents, who are originally from the Palestinian village of Beit Awwa, south of Hebron, were not thrilled about the idea their son (the seventh of their eight children and the only one to pursue academia) had of moving to Israel to continue his education.

“My family was shocked at first. They were afraid because of what they were seeing in the news and media. There were still tensions from the Second Intifada and they didn’t think it was safe,” Sweity said.

Amer Sweity on a visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. (Courtesy)
Amer Sweity on a visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. (Courtesy)

“It got to the point that I needed to fight with them about this. I really needed this experience. I knew that this kind of chance doesn’t come every day.”

Sweity arrived in 2006 at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura to begin in a Masters program. He continued on to Ben-Gurion University, where he acquainted himself well and quickly with other students and faculty, according to Professor Yoram Oren, who was at the time head of the Department of Desalination and Water Treatment at the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research.

“Amer got used to the Israeli scene quickly and his Hebrew is very good. We like him very much and it is a pity that he will leave us,” he said.

Before coming to Israel, Sweity had never met a Jew and knew no Hebrew. Within three years of his arrival, he had taught himself to speak, read and write Hebrew fluently and had made many friends of various religious backgrounds all over the country. When he’s not in the lab, he likes to hike, swim and play soccer.

It took a bit of time for Sweity, from a traditional Muslim family, to become acclimated to Israeli society, which he found to be much more open than the one he grew up in Amman.

“Israel was too open for me at the beginning. I was shocked to see the drinking and partying,” he said.

Sweity’s having lived in southern Israel through three confrontations with Gaza has made him anxious about what he called “the whole situation.”

‘I want to do something for the coming generations in all the countries in the region. Science doesn’t stop at borders’

“The fight has no meaning. The politicians don’t understand the situation, and those who don’t live near Gaza don’t either. The people who live around here voted for the Left,” he said as he reflected on Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection this past March.

He is also frustrated by the fact that because Jordan is on high alert because of the instability on its borders with Iraq and Syria, it is forced to invest heavily in security, leaving fewer resources for trying to solve the country’s water problems.

Calling Sweity “bright, very talented and very ambitious,” Oren said he could see him working in academics or for a company in Jordan and pushing for more cooperation with Israel and a stronger peace between the countries than what exists now.

Sweity himself acknowledged that his motivation to complete his doctorate and to conduct research in desalination goes well beyond merely bringing pride to his family.

“I want to do something for the coming generations in all the countries in the region. Science doesn’t stop at borders,” he said.

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