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From a Refugee Camp to a Biophysics Lab

The Open Society Foundations provides substantial support to many large organizations. But many of our most meaningful efforts take place on a much smaller scale. We heard from Dr. Admir Mašić, who received Open Society funding for his education many years ago.

What sort of work do you do?

I am a group leader at the Max Planck Institutes near Berlin and have recently been offered positions at several prestigious universities. My current research focus is the development of innovative multiscale methodologies, for use in characterizing biological tissues and biomimetic materials.

I’m also a former recipient of an Open Society Foundations grant that had an immense impact on my life.

Start from the beginning—what was your life like before receiving this grant?

Twenty years ago my family was uprooted by the war in my homeland of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Leaving behind everything, we found shelter in a refugee camp near Rijeka, in northern Croatia.

I had nothing and was unable to do many of the things that seemed normal to my local friends. I was not even allowed to regularly enroll in school and instead, with the support of two professors, simply sat in on classes at a vocational high school, trying not to be noticed.

How did this affect your ability to get an education?

I soon discovered a love for math and science, especially chemistry. This passion got me through those difficult years; I had my books and they gave me a fundamental security based on solid knowledge, something that no one could take from me.

My talent did not go unnoticed—I, a Bosnian refugee auditing classes at a vocational school, won a citywide chemistry competition and was invited to Zagreb, where I received honors at the national level. Indeed, education allowed me to prove myself and hope for a better future.

Were you able to attend university after that?

Moving forward with my studies was difficult due to obstacles that were economic in nature. Based on my academic achievements, and with help from a dozen Italian volunteers that visited my refugee camp, I was invited to pursue undergraduate studies in Italy, but I could not even afford the application fee.

On the recommendation of my high school professor, I applied for and received a $500 Open Society grant. That generous contribution allowed me to pay all necessary admission fees and later covered the costs of moving to Italy, where—again, supported by the same volunteers—I received a full scholarship to continue my studies at the University of Torino. I graduated summa cum laude and earned my PhD in 2006.

In addition to a valuable education, what else did you walk away from this experience with?

The contribution went beyond just financial help, even though that was really essential. It meant so much to me as a young person who faced discrimination and ethnic segregation. I knew that a man named George Soros in the United States understood my difficulties and believed in me without prejudice. It renewed my efforts to learn and restored my faith in others.

To an “unlucky” boy from Bosnia, the experience meant the world to me, and it encouraged me to strive to give back in the same way. Today, I give a small scholarship to deserving youngsters in my former village in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and try to educate my students on the importance and power of knowledge in their lives.

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