UCAR Communications


staff notes monthly

December 2002 / January 2003

From Africa and South America

Hatim Sharif, a visiting postdoc from Sudan, and José Garcia, a software engineer from Venezuela, are just two of dozens of staffers who came here from overseas. This is Part 2 of a 3-part Staff Notes Monthly series profiling a few of these visitors and long-term staff who have noticed striking differences—or, in some cases, similarities—between Boulder and their homelands.

Hatim Sharif

Every life is a story, and Hatim Sharif’s is no exception. The soft-spoken postdoc in RAP came here from Sudan, a country with a rich combination of African, Arabic, and Islamic traditions—and Hatim loves sharing his thoughts about his homeland.

Hatim, who grew up in the northern part of the country in the historic town of Shendi, was the first in his family to obtain a Ph.D. His grandmother never understood why he insisted on staying up late studying; she, along with most of her generation, felt that whether one excelled was predetermined by God and luck. But even though members of Hatim’s family worried about him being away from home for long periods of time, they accepted and encouraged his career choices.

Hatim went to the University of Khartoum (in Sudan’s capital) to study civil engineering and, after working in Sudan for eight years as an engineer, emigrated to the United States in 1992. He earned a master’s degree from Colorado State University in civil engineering and a Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut in environmental engineering before arriving at NCAR last January.

Hatim’s main area of research at NCAR is hydrology. “I became interested in hydrology because of the dichotomy of living in a country with vast water resources and extreme droughts,” he explains. (Much of Sudan is arid, but the Nile River traverses the country from south to north.) In RAP, Hatim is working with Ed Brandes, modeling rainfall runoff with radar data.

Hatim brings an interesting perspective when discussing drought in the western United States. Because northern Sudan is essentially a desert, Hatim smiles when he hears people complain about the drought here—not because it’s a frivolous issue but because to him the word “drought” means something far more severe than is ordinarily the case on the Front Range. “At least, here, you see green and some rivers and streams,” he says. “In northern Sudan, it is barren, with very few trees or water sources.”

The importance of family

Hatim and his wife, Eman (also from Sudan), have three children: Muhammad (which means “praised” in Arabic), Duaa (“prayer”), and Rund (“a sweet-smelling tree in the Sahara”). Hatim and Eman speak Arabic at home (Eman speaks little English), and they want their children to be fluent in Arabic as well as English.

RAP postdoc Hatim Sharif and his wife, Eman, with their three children: (left to right) Rund, Muhammad, and Duaa.

When asked about difficulties living here, “lack of family support” is first on the list. In Sudan, Hatim and Eman have an extended family who would be there to help with any need—child care, nursing a sick child, shopping, and so on. Adapting to the lack of nearby family has been difficult, but Hatim and Eman have made friends through CU Family Housing, and they know a few people from Africa and the Middle East who live in the Denver area.

Hatim stays in touch with his family by calling home every week. The last time he visited Sudan was April 2001. Aside from the expense, Hatim doesn’t have a problem returning to Sudan since he is a permanent U.S. resident. However, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it is very difficult for his relatives from Sudan to come to the United States. Hatim worries that September 11 will have a long-lasting negative impact on Muslims.

With the discovery of oil in Sudan, Hatim says, the nation’s economy has strengthened. Despite high unemployment, drought, and pockets of famine, “the quality of life has improved for many.” Hatim is clearly proud of his country. He notes that its history can be traced back thousands of years and that Sudan is home to numerous pyramids—which are far less overrun by tourists than the well-known sites in neighboring Egypt. A fond memory for Hatim is going on school picnics by the pyramids near his hometown.

A major cultural difference Hatim has noticed is that social values in Sudan are more conservative than in the United States. For example, Sudanese women often wear a traditional “toub,” a long garment that is similar to an Indian sari and covers most of the body. Like a sari, a toub (which is also worn in Mauritania and Somalia), is quite beautiful and can be very expensive. The women, however, do not cover their faces, as in conservative Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia.

As for the American lifestyle, Hatim says he values the opportunity and freedom to achieve personal and career goals. In Sudan, “social and other factors have a big influence on personal freedom and choice.”

Hatim’s fellowship will finish at the end of 2003. After that, he is not sure whether he’ll stay in this country. Hatim says it’s a difficult trade-off between the opportunities here and the desire to be closer to his family in Sudan.

“I appreciate everything I’ve learned here,” he says. “But my family is very important to me.”

•Carol Park

Carol Park is an administrative assistant in RAP.

José Garcia

Ask José Garcia what he likes most about the United States, compared to his native Venezuela, and he’ll reply without any hesitation, “the political system.”

HAO’s José Garcia with his wife, Anne.

By that, the wiry and friendly HAO software engineer means that it’s nice to live in a country that has an established political system. Some Americans may grouse about tax dollars being spent inefficiently or elected officials being out of touch with voters, but José appreciates the fact that cities and counties in the United States try to provide basic services, such as police protection and road maintenance. “Here it’s a very strong sense of order,” he says.

In Venezuela, by contrast, a four-decade-old democratic system is beset by political unrest, reports of endemic corruption, and widespread poverty. José says that many people are so distrustful of their government that they don’t go to the police to report crimes like burglaries. Soldiers are a regular presence on the streets, and José remembers being stopped repeatedly by them and asked for his identification papers.

A few years ago his father, José Humberto Garcia, had an especially unfortunate run-in with the army. He happened to be driving a car that looked suspicious the same night that authorities were tracking reports of a car theft. “They just started shooting at the car because they thought it was stolen,” José recalls. “My father got shot.” Fortunately his father, an electrical engineering professor at the university, was only wounded in the shoulder.

The lack of political order aside, José misses many things about his hometown of Mérida. A university town with an old quarter that dates back to 16th- century colonial days, Mérida is nestled in a valley below the highest peaks of the Venezuelan Andes. (At more than 16,000 feet, or 4,900 meters, they easily surpass any of Colorado’s “fourteeners”). Mérida is a tourist mecca that boasts rainforests and waterfalls, the world’s longest cable car route (7.7 miles, or 12.5 kilometers), and an ideal climate with an average year-round high of about 70°F (21°C).

Growing up in such a setting, the athletic José spent as much time as he could in the mountains. He climbed some of South America’s highest peaks and took a job as a guide leading tourists through the mountains. In 1994, a woman named Anne Upczak flew down from Boulder to join one of his expeditions, and the two fell in love. Within two years, they married. Anne didn’t want to live in Mérida because of the harsh political system, so the couple settled in Boulder.

“I love Boulder,” José says. “My lifestyle really favors Boulder because of the outdoors. I like to climb mountains and compete in triathlons.”

With a background in systems engineering, José soon landed a job as a consultant. He came to HAO in 1998 as a software engineer, and he now feels thoroughly at home in the institution. (He’s also made his mark as a staff athlete. In the 13 September Up-the-Hill Races, he placed third in the bike race and second in the foot race, and he participated in HAO’s winning relay team.)

High-altitude glaciers

Although not a climatologist, José has an unusual perspective on global climate change. As a mountaineer, he has noticed the dramatic retreat of high- altitude glaciers. In fact, even recent mountaineering guidebooks are outdated because climbers can now hike at elevations where they used to have to traverse glaciers.

“Last year while climbing Huascaran in Peru [the highest tropical mountain in the world at 22,205 feet or 6,768 meters] I could see how fast the glaciers have retreated,” he recalls. “Photos from just two years ago showed that to get to Camp One, you had to climb through séracs [ice pinnacles] and snow fields for hours. Now a 30-minute walk on black ice will suffice to get to the same place.”

As much as he likes Boulder, there are definitely things José misses about his home country. Number one on the list, not surprisingly, is his family. “My family’s huge for me,” he says. “That’s common in Latino culture.”

José flies back to Venezuela once or twice a year to see his parents and four brothers and sisters. Despite the distance, he has forged a new family tie by operating a coffee business with his brother, José Gerardo, an exporter in Venezuela. José just started distributing Café Andino, and you may see it at some UCAR events.

José also misses his culture’s traditional Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a holiday on 1 November when families gather in cemeteries to honor their deceased ancestors. “I always miss my grandparents,” he says. “I like to think they’re still in my life.”

Despite the cultural differences, José feels at home here. He has made numerous friends and enjoys spending time with his in-laws. And he notes that even though Mérida and Boulder are thousands of miles apart, they are both highly livable university towns located at the base of towering mountains.

“When you go to a university town, especially in the Western world,” José says, “there are many things in common.” •David Hosansky

Also in this issue...

The Outstanding Accomplishment Awards

Coffee for 1,200?
JOSS group provides logistics for conferences, field programs

NCAR supercomputer joins list of world’s fastest

Scientists explore fundamental building blocks of the atmosphere

NCAR's influence: Way beyond its size

Sittin' with Santa

Delphi Questions

Climate convocation mulls the state of U.S. research


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