Planting hope: the Syrian refugee who developed virus-resistant super-seeds

Nathanaël Chouraqui

The call came as she sat in her hotel room. “They gave us 10 minutes to pack up and leave,” Dr Safaa Kumari was told down a crackling phone line. Armed fighters had just seized her house in Aleppo and her family were on the run.

Kumari was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, preparing to present a conference. She immediately began organising a sprint back to Syria. Hidden in her sister’s house was a small but very valuable bundle that she was prepared to risk her life to recover.

Kumari is a plant virologist. Her work focuses on a quiet yet devastating development crisis. Climate-fuelled virus epidemics affecting fava beans, lentils and chickpeas are spreading from Syria to Ethiopia, gradually destroying the livelihoods of low-income populations. Known as “poor man’s meat”, these pulses are vital for both income generation and food security in many parts of the world.

Finding a cure was urgent, Kumari explains. Hopeless farmers were seeing increasing levels of infected crops turning yellow and black. The cause? “Climate change provides aphids with the right temperatures to breed exponentially and spread the epidemics,” she says.

For 10 years, Kumari worked to find a solution. Finally, she discovered a bean variety naturally resistant to one of the viruses: the fava bean necrotic yellow virus (FBNYV). “When I found those resistant seeds, I felt there was something important in them,” says Kumari from her lab in Lebanon where she now works. Only the fighting in Syria had moved. “I had left them at my sister’s in central Aleppo to protect them from the fighting,” she says.

They wanted to buy our product and then sell it to the farmers, but we refused

Dr Safaa Kumari, plant virologist

Determined not to let a war get in the way of her work “for the world’s poor”, Kumari felt it her duty to rescue the seeds in Aleppo. “I was thinking: how am I going to get those seeds out of Syria?

“I had to go through Damascus, and then drive all the way to Aleppo. There was fighting and bombings everywhere.” After two days’ driving along dangerous roads, seeds in hand, Kumari made it to Lebanon, where she now works as a researcher at Icarda (International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas) in the Bekaa valley, close to the Syrian border. Hassan Machlab, Icarda’s country manager says: “Many of the Syrian scientists we welcomed here have suffered. It is tough.”

But bringing the seeds to safety was only the beginning. Kumari needed to turn them into a sustainable solution.

As crop production collapsed in the region, producers started to rely heavily on insecticides. “Most farmers go to the field and spray it without safety material – masks and appropriate jacket,” she says. “Some are dying, others are getting sick or developing pregnancy issues.”

At first, the sample failed. “So we crossed them with another variety that had a better yield and obtained something that is both resistant and productive,” says Kumari. “When we release it, it will be environment-friendly and provide farmers with a good yield, more cheaply and without insecticide.”

Kumari now plans to distribute her super-seeds free to farmers. She has already turned down an offer from a large company for the virus detection technology.

“They wanted to buy our product and then sell it to the farmers, but we refused,” says Kumari. “Ours is free. It’s our responsibility to provide our solutions to people everywhere,” she says.

But, as for many Syrian refugees, the war is never far from her thoughts, “Something she won’t tell you is that it wasn’t easy for her,” says Machlab. “She was working on all this and she didn’t have a clear mind as her family were in Aleppo and her house was destroyed.”

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Kumari adds: “Last week I saw my family in Turkey. I have five sisters and three brothers, scattered in Germany, Turkey, Syria. The last time we met was in Aleppo in 2012. When I came back someone told me ‘Safaa, you’re looking great today!’ Of course, I had just spent time with my family again!” she says, laughing.

But she adds: “It’s not easy for me, it’s not easy for a woman to work on agriculture (research). It’s not easy, but it’s OK.

“When I’m working, I’m not thinking I am a Syrian or a woman though. But I do feel I sometimes receive funding [from westerners] because I’m a woman,” she says. “Perhaps!”