A researcher’s journey – or how I became a big girl in a small world

Until October 2016, I had never considered flying abroad alone. It wasn’t even a fantasy because it’s unattainable: women cannot travel abroad alone in my culture! My name is Sawsan Kheir, and I am a double-degree PhD student in the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Haifa in Israel and the Study of Religions, Åbo Akademi University in Finland. In this text I want to share my journey to become a researcher with you.

First steps – breaking down barriers

I still very clearly remember the day I received an email from Dr. Nurit Novis-Deutsch of the University of Haifa introducing herself and offering me a position as a research assistant for an international research project in Finland. Yes! Me! A minority girl from a small village in northern Israel has been invited to participate in a major international research project! My delight was short-lived, however, when I read the sentence in which she attempted to “convince” me to take the job: “This will include a flight to a 10-day training workshop in Finland.” I shut down the computer and felt depressed. As a member of a conservative religious minority – the Druze – I was raised in accordance with values of modesty and conformity to societal dictates. In my culture, a woman can fly abroad only if she is accompanied by a Mahram (father, brother, son, or first-degree uncle). When I told my husband about the email with a sad expression, he encouraged me to travel and added that he had no problem looking after 2-year-old Julianne, our daughter.

My mood improved, but I couldn’t stop thinking about my father. Would he agree? Much to my surprise, he not only did not object, but he inquired about the details, and I saw a look of pride in his eyes. It’s amazing that I could have given up that trip simply because I assumed they were going to ban or obstruct me. This fact taught me a valuable lesson for life: when we attempt to break down barriers or perform any daring action, we sometimes create scripts in our heads about reactions and negative outcomes. These scripts have the power to paralyze us and extinguish the flame of courage within us, and as a result, we may miss out on great opportunities for success and development simply because we stopped the ardor of our ambitions at the barrier of thought and did not try to put them into action and realize them. In this case, the script of realizing self-aspiration will be resurrected and die in our heads, which is unfortunate. Sometimes all we need to do is try!

I was traveling to Finland, alone. I had the feeling I was on the top of the world. Julianne’s needs had enslaved me since I gave birth to her after a serious car accident that had left me at home for a year and a half of rehabilitation. I was terrified of leaving her for the first time, and “good spirits” only added to my anxiety when they learned about my trip—”How can you leave her for so long?” I was asked. But I decided not to listen to them; Julianne would be fine, and perhaps the time had come to call an end to our symbiotic relationship. Motherhood is the most difficult task a woman can face, but in order to survive it, she must always remember herself!

International research and new research directions

Finland, what a lovely country! I vividly recall my first meeting with the YARG research team at the Donner Institute. YARG – Young Adults and Religion in a Global Perspective, Centre of Excellence in Research – aimed to investigate the religious worldviews and value profiles of young adult university students (aged 18–30) from 13 different countries: Canada, China, Finland, Ghana, India, Israel (two samples – Arab and Jewish), Japan, Peru, Poland, Sweden, Turkey, Russia, and the United States.

Everything seems bigger when you come from a disadvantaged background. I felt a tremendous sense of privilege and significance, and I couldn’t believe I was there, participating in such an international research project. I met academics from all over the world and made wonderful friends, the majority of whom I am still in contact with today. I felt the bone-chilling Scandinavian cold that everyone was talking about, but in my heart was a warmth of excitement and accomplishment that no cold could extinguish. Walking along the Aura-river on the way to Åbo Akademi University every morning became the path to the “lottery-ticket” that changed my life.

The Study of Religions in general, and the Psychology of Religion in particular, were previously completely foreign fields of study to me, and exposure to these fields was extremely enriching and fascinating. At the time, I was nearly finished with my PhD proposal for the School of Psychological Sciences, University of Haifa, which aimed to investigate intercultural differences in competitive victimhood and its relationships to measures of well-being among minority members.

At the end of the ten-day training, Prof. Peter Nynäs, the head of the YARG, offered me to set aside the doctorate that I had returned to write after a year and a half at home, and write my doctorate within the YARG. To pursue a previously unknown course of study – a double doctorate: two research proposals, two universities, different requirements, and one large article-based doctorate. As someone who has always taken the difficult path, I naturally agreed, and I thank God for that decision every day.

Studying religious minorities and putting the Druze on the map

Research about the Druze community is scarce, particularly in religious studies since we are a closed society with a secret religion. What does “secret religion” mean? Even as a Druze, I do not have access to the Druze religious texts, unless I go through a lengthy application process and become religious according to the dictates of the community. I wanted to conduct research on my community, and the fact that some members of the research team in Finland had never heard of the Druze until I arrived pushed me even more to “put us on the map”.

My study compares the value profiles and religious subjectivities of young adult Druze and Muslim students in Israel, two religious and ethnic minorities undergoing modernization processes. I chose to focus on these two minority groups because of their cultural similarities on the one hand, and their differences in terms of defining their national identity on the other. So far, I have completed two articles for the PhD, while also publishing several academic publications unrelated to the PhD (which is no less important than the PhD itself for those aspiring to an academic career).

The challenges of combining travels, work, and motherhood

Between 2018 and 2019, I was awarded the Åbo Akademi University Doctoral Research Grant, which allowed me to focus on my research. In 2021 I was awarded the Donner Institute Research Grant that further assisted me to advance the work on my PhD. In 2019, the ÅAU grant was expanded to include the option of relocating to Finland. I traveled alone, with my two daughters – Julianne and Mulan (6 years old and 6 months old at the time) – and without my partner. The transition was very difficult, especially since Mulan was fully breastfed. I had long days without good sleep, cried a lot, came to work with black circles under my eyes, the babysitter who accompanied me from Israel decided to leave two days before traveling to Estonia for the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR) conference, and I had to get my 18-year-old cousin to come and help, and then I found myself caring for three girls! I had a crazy journey with an exhausting trip to that conference. Fifteen hours after I left my apartment in Turku, I was finally able to sit on the bed and cry out my weakness and the physical and mental fatigue I felt.   

Besides all the difficulties, however, I learned a lot about Finland. I was surprised to learn that racism exists also in Finland when a large man screamed at me after hearing me speak Arabic to my babysitter. However, this did not change my impression of Finns as warm-hearted and generous people, as I met so many helpful people along the way. I discovered that every Finnish home has a sauna – or a large part of them at least – that order and queuing are very important in Finnish culture, that Finland has amazing nature, and that the most delicious blueberries and peas I’ve ever tasted are grown in Finland! And, as a chocoholic, Fazer became a part of my hourly routine!

Following my dreams

In the end, however, Finland taught me the most about myself. I learned that nothing is impossible if we want it badly enough, that I can break any barrier that stands in my way, and that while it will take a lot of energy from me and will occasionally make me feel weak, sad, mentally crushed, and in need of help, breaking any such barrier will make me feel stronger than ever. It is a reminder that if I managed to get through this, there’s no reason why I couldn’t do it again, just because I previously thought it was impossible.

Thanks to Finland, I will never again walk as a small girl in a big world, but rather as a big girl in a small world who uses adversity to propel herself higher in pursuit of her dreams!