I come from a very small Catholic village in the middle of Lebanon, a dot on the map of the Middle East. It’s a beautiful country, very small. My village is idyllic and isolated and it was my world until I turned eighteen.
For many years in Lebanon, we had many wars for many reasons. Living my childhood through this period weirdly felt like a thrilling adventure at times; the school was shut often and when open, classrooms kept changing places based on what was deemed safe.
We had no electricity for a long time and learnt how to entertain ourselves without it. At home, we could only stay in the rooms on the ground floor; doors and windows were blocked with sandbags. The regions were partitioned and separated which meant cars delivering essentials needed for us to survive had to queue for hours to cross a military check point. It gave us kids exciting opportunities to become entrepreneurs; we’d set up sales points for fresh water, merchandise and more.
This same period at times was scary and confusing especially when seeing the terror on the faces of our parents and other adults. It felt “normal” then; in retrospect, it was an inhumane existence. Lebanon was once the most hospitable, the most diverse country. But conflict changed it. It made people develop the worst aversion towards each other and towards whoever was “different”.
Luckily, when the time came for me to follow higher education, peace was established in the country and I could get to wherever I chose to study.
I have always been fascinated by science and because of my academic accomplishments, I ended up at the American University of Beirut, one of the top schools in that part of the world. It wasn’t very accessible to people from all socio-economic backgrounds, but it was strikingly more diverse than the village school I’d attended. This was perhaps the first true cultural shock; to meaningfully interact with people of a different religion and background was a challenge I had to live through but ended up thoroughly enjoying. It was perhaps one of the most enriching aspects of my undergraduate education, one that set me up for what followed when I won scholarships to pursue graduate studies in the UK.
Taking up the scholarships and moving abroad was not an easy decision. I am attached to my family and had never left home. My parents were very conflicted. Lebanon is diverse in its beliefs and lifestyles, a manifestation of amalgamation of civilizations over millennia. Still, the underlying conservative Middle Eastern values persist; there are social constraints and codes of conduct you have to respect.
For example, though girls are encouraged to study, excel, be independent, there is a tendency to value a shift of focus towards getting married and having a family by a certain age. This might have changed since, but it was an expectation back then.
My parents encouraged me every step of the way and knew very well that all the opportunities I was getting were to be grateful for. Still, they heard opinions such as “if you let her go now, you will lose her forever”. Losing a daughter has many painful connotations in our part of the world. It hurt to watch my parents deal with this kind of dilemma.
Another unexpected challenge unraveled when I met my now husband; a Palestinian Muslim expressing intentions to propose to a Lebanese Christian. Google the Lebanese civil war and you will discover how this news would have hit our parents (and everyone in both our circles).
To make matters worse, at the time we met, I was about to start a D.Phil at the University of Oxford. I was pursuing everything I was not supposed to; everything that would seal my future away from home, both literally and figuratively.
I was my community’s golden girl; I was the person they presented as a role model to their daughters and there I was, becoming the opposite of everything anyone could want for their girls. I needed to figure out a way to keep all the things that were dear to me. I succeeded thanks to my parents’ ability to see beyond labels and my supportive community that I presumptuously underestimated when it came to accepting “different” sets of choices.
Nowadays, my husband is considered part of my childhood community and actively seeks to connect and contribute when we visit. We have been married for 14 years and have two daughters who call themselves “Mustians” – Muslim and Christian. They think it’s the best thing ever; they get to celebrate more festivals. They have also developed an interest in learning more about other religions and ways of living. They find it exciting.
Our daughters go to a school in Oxford where diversity is at its best; pupils with all shades of skin colour who speak more languages than most children at this stage are exposed to. They all express their cultures and beliefs in their dress and mannerism. It’s a privilege to witness. It is simply beautiful.
Contrasting my upbringing to my daughters’, it might seem that I lived the other extreme, where I cruised in an extremely homogenous environment, but that’s not how I saw it. In my small village, the community was so tight that we got to see the diversity at a different resolution.
Gatherings, whether in family or at a larger community scale, meant that we had a better understanding of the uniqueness of human nature that transcends cultural, religious, racial, or any other apparent and labeled differences. It may sound like a cliché, but it really taught me tolerance and how to find the good in the invisible “different”.
It taught me that there is richness and strength in personal uniqueness, a quality that is key to my life now. I now live in an extremely diverse environment amongst extremely talented, skilled and ambitious people. I am at a place where I have to create and innovate to stay relevant and thrive. For this, I need an open, accepting, tolerant, kind and curious predisposition.
In my professional life, both in research and in Innovation Forum, diversity is key and manifests at various levels from external physical differentials to differences in ways of thinking. We believe that creativity, innovation and ultimately impact cannot be achieved without welcoming in a spectrum of skills and perspectives.
My personal and professional paths have definitely diverged from what was expected from me and I could not have accomplished what I have now if I was not accepting of the “different”. My hope is for diversity to become so harmonious with our existence that it becomes invisible yet enriching.
Dr Mira Kassouf is a Senior Postdoctoral Researcher at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford. Her research interest lies in gene regulation and her current work addresses how certain sequences of DNA act as “on/off switches” for genes in red cells. Mira believes in the research scientists’ untapped potential as innovative entrepreneurs and acknowledges the shared skills and mindsets between the two. As a co-founder of Innovation Forum Oxford in 2016, she supported her local academic ecosystem through creating knowledge exchange platforms that not only inspired and educated but also connected entrepreneurially-inclined researchers with like-minded peers and enablers. As the current president of Innovation Forum Oxford, Mira focuses with her team on synergising with the Oxford innovation stakeholders to effectively create and capture value from the Oxford world-class talents and science excellence, ultimately impacting positively on the local and national knowledge economy. You can find her on LinkedIn, Twitter, and on the University of Oxford website.