Egyptian scientist finds a rewarding life in Xinjiang

For Osama Abdalla Abdelshafy Mohamed, an Egyptian scientist who has been living in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region for more than four years, one thing has long remained largely unchanged.

"My first impression of Xinjiang is also the lasting impression," says Osama, who describes the western Chinese region as a safe, beautiful, diverse and hospitable place.

As a researcher at the State Key Laboratory of Desert and Oasis Ecology of the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography, or XIEG, of the Chinese Academy of Science, Osama began his ties with Xinjiang in 2014.

Li Li, a classmate of Osama during his four-year doctoral study at Northwest A&F University in Shaanxi province, introduced him to both Professor Li Wenjun, the group leader of the laboratory of Extreme Environmental Microbiology, and to a fellowship research project called the Talented Young Scientist program at the Xinjiang institute.

Osama had no idea about Xinjiang at the time. He researched it online, only to find many sensational reports from several foreign news organizations. A little worried, Osama contacted Li's husband Ma Jinbiao, also his classmate.

Ma was born and raised in Tacheng, a picturesque region in north Xinjiang known for its ethnic diversity. "He told me that these reports were not factual, and they live in good conditions and (have) a happy life in Xinjiang," says Osama. "Of course I chose to believe my friend."

Osama's choice proved to be the right one. When he came to Xinjiang in October 2014, his first impression was that it was "quite a normal place".

"I didn't feel anything strange," says Osama, adding that he enjoys the local life, including diverse cultures and easy access to different kinds of halal food.

Xinjiang is one of the most ethnically diverse regions in China. People here enjoy the freedom to speak their own language, Osama says. "Wherever you turn on the TV or radio in Xinjiang, you can find many channels showing programs in the local ethnic language."

So he didn't believe all the Western news on Xinjiang, and he still does not believe it, he says. "It is fake."

Despite ethnic differences, Osama feels that "all these people are united together to work for a better life". He says life in Xinjiang is changing for the better as the central and local governments try their best to facilitate good conditions for local people.

Osama has noticed rapid infrastructure improvement in the city he lives in.

"When I first came to Urumqi, it was just the Rapid Bus Transit. Now we have the subway and you can see that Urumqi is extending everywhere, with many new buildings," he says.

Osama has visited many places in Xinjiang and now considers himself a local. He feels like a member of Ma's big family in Tacheng, which he has visited several times.

During the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020, Osama was in Egypt and felt that he should do something to help. He donated 2,000 yuan ($309) to hospitals in Wuhan, the hardest hit city at that time.

He says his help was nothing compared to the support he has received from China over the past decade. "I can say that, as a scientist, I am made in China, because Chinese professors and classmates have taught me how to do high-quality research and build my scientific career."

Osama has produced a series of meaningful scientific results during his time at the XIEG. He co-published 36 SCI research articles, two book chapters and a book under the guidance of his supervisor Li Wenjun, and received the International Partnership Award for Young Scientists of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2019.

In May, Osama received the Tianshan Award, the top honor for foreigners living in Xinjiang in recognition of their contributions to the region's development.

As an associate professor at Egypt's Arish University, Osama is seeking to establish long-term cooperation between his university and CAS, including his dream of setting up a joint lab center at Arish University under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Talking about his future plans, Osama says: "Now, and without any doubt, I can say I wish to live in Xinjiang for more than 10 years."