Syria’s Academic Exiles Tell Their Stories
Researchers have much to contribute to the study of law, education, engineering and healthcare, suggests new collection
A new collection showcases the stories and research of seven Syrian academics who have been able to start rebuilding their careers in exile. Syrian Academics in Exile, edited by Paul O’Keeffe and Zsuzsanna Pásztor, is a special online publication by New Research Voices: International Journal of Research from the Front-line.
Unlike many countries suffering a major humanitarian crisis, Syria had “a quite strong and accessible higher education system prior to the war”, James King, the assistant director of the New York-based Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund, explains in an interview. Yet today, leading institutions are “not operating at all or…at limited capacity”; they are allowed to hire only faculty who have completed their military service; exams have to be rescheduled for weeks because of bombing; and perhaps 1,500 or 2,000 professors have now become refugees. Although the IIE-SRF has “supported more than 600 scholars from 55 countries”, continues Mr King, its “work has been dominated by Syria” since late 2014. Yet while its one- and two-year fellowships can offer a lifeline to scholars seeking to rebuild careers in neighbouring countries or across the globe, the obstacles remain overwhelming.“As hundreds of thousands of Syrians seeking refuge make their way to our shores,” the editors of Syrian Academics in Exile note in their introduction, “migration systems are collapsing, border fences are shooting up and far right ideologies which demonise all migrants are gaining ground.”
Their collection is specifically designed to “serve as a reminder of the variety of Syrian academic expertise that exists around the world and offer a window into the wide variety of research being carried out by scholars in exile, not only in the social sciences, but also in other natural and applied sciences, e.g. engineering, healthcare, philosophy and in many interdisciplinary fields”.
Topics covered range from the “difficulties of refugee education in Lebanon” to “sexuality and lesbian subjectivity in contemporary Arab literature” and the role of data analytics in “improv[ing] modern healthcare services and online education performance”. Each of the scholars is also interviewed about their experiences in Syria, their life in exile and their hopes for the future.
Agronomist Ahmad Sadiddin, now in the second year of an IIE-SRF fellowship at the University of Florence, for example, describes how he fled Syria after being “regarded as a suspect [by his] commanders” during military service in 2010, who “preferred to keep [him] in the barracks and under their control”.Yet he hopes that what he is learning abroad may yet “help to open a kind of dialogue in the country…one day this exile experience may turn out to become an enrichment to the Syria of the future”.
The volume concludes with an overview of the Jamiya Project, which “aims to reconnect Syrian students with their higher education while in exile”, with a view to “preventing the loss of an entire generation of education”.
Syrian academics, in particular, are exposed to great risks in this conflict. They are faced with not just expressing their rejection of the oppressive practices of the Syrian regime against its own people and the extremist groups that operate to impose their ideas by force, but also speaking up about what is happening around them – the killing of civilians who are merely asking for their freedom and for their dignity.
In general, there are no Syrian academics in the regions where ISIS has seized control. Most have fled along with large portions of the population. In other parts of the country, where the government is in control, some academics remain but live under a system that has repressed academic freedoms and savaged human rights. Under such conditions, Syrian academics have one of two bitter choices – either to remain in the government-controlled areas or flee the country. Unsurprisingly, a large number of Syrian faculty members have left the country.
While there are obvious benefits to leaving the country, there are also consequences. If a faculty member leaves the country without permission from the Ministry of Education (which is virtually impossible to obtain), they lose all their entitlements and privileges, including their pensions which so many have devoted long service to contribute to.
The faculty members who have decided to stay can be classified into three categories. The first category is a group of faculty members who favour the regime and support its aggressive actions. Most of these people have graduated from universities in Eastern European countries and are staying in Syria, either due to a lack of academic qualifications or because they do not have the language skills to enable them to work at Western universities. The second category comprises faculty members who find it is difficult to leave the country either because they do not have the required qualifications to compete in their academic fields internationally or they do not want to risk their lives by leaving the country. They know that life without a secure income abroad would be very difficult and fear the harsh measures the regime would take against them if they left. The third category includes those who can’t leave due to social and family circumstances. For those that have stayed academic life is as bad as it was before the war. The corruption, the lack of academic freedom and the persecution of academics all continues.
Syrian academics in exile
In general, Syrian academics who have left the country can be divided into two groups, depending on when they left the country. The first group made the decision to leave Syria in the first three years of the war. They mostly had foreign papers – particularly from Western countries – which helped to facilitate the departure process for them. This group also includes those who held certain political stances against the regime’s policy of suppressing freedoms and human rights. Many of them were unable to secure academic jobs outside Syria, but had to leave anyway due to the fear of repercussions because of the views they had expressed. The second group made the decision to depart within the last two years. The reason they left was mostly due to the difficult economic situation and their inability to afford high living expenses caused by spiralling inflation while salaries for faculty members have remained fixed.
In light of the terrible situation some international organisations such as the Scholar Rescue Fund of the Institute of International Education, the Scholars at Risk Network, and Council for At-Risk Academics have offered fellowship grants to many Syrian academics to continue their work overseas at foreign universities. Unfortunately, many more Syrian academics are not able to obtain such grants. Syrian academics abroad find themselves in a difficult situation, especially when they are, for many reasons, unable to secure an academic job. For many, academia is more than a job; it is a calling.
Preserving Syrian academic life is the best hope for the future. The current situation requires special support from international organisations to find new and innovative mechanisms to allow Syrian academics to continue their activities outside Syria so that, if peace comes, they can help rebuild the country. In particular, we need to strengthen cooperation between international organisations and universities in the Middle East and North Africa – especially in Syria’s neighbouring countries – so they can host those academics whose language skills limit their chances of securing fellowships from Western universities. Not only would this reduce the language barrier constraint, it would also be cheaper, as living expenses in these 18 countries are much lower than in the West. This would allow more scholars to continue their work and extend the time they receive fellowships for. I would like to thank all the international organisations for their efforts to support and assist Syrian academics and hope they will continue to do so in the future.
Farzan Al-Khalil is a pseudonym. The author of this opinion piece/article has chosen to remain anonymous due to security reasons. This article was first published in newresearchvoices.org.
A New Approach to Realize Higher Education’s Development Potential for Syrian Refugees – Devex.com Editorial 6/5/2016
Education has long been recognized as a central driver of development. With the advent of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, its importance has now been amplified to include the role of lifelong learning in addition to primary and secondary education in the global community’s development arsenal. Higher education can and does offer a better future for societies that embrace its development potential.
As higher education claims its place among the international mechanisms put forward to achieve better and deeper development, it is important to acknowledge that it has a long history of helping societies strive for a better future. From the influence of German and French scholars arriving at New York’s New School in the 1930s and ‘40s to the central role that higher education played in Europe’s postwar development success, higher education has proved itself to be a force for shaping the world for the better.
In addition to its development function, higher education can also provide a solution for resolving some of the world’s most important crises. War and poverty may be an almost unstoppable force disrupting the lives of millions and impeding human progress, but higher education has the power to overcome this and put the lives of millions back on course. In connection with the Syrian crisis, there has been a growing realization among the international development community that higher education offers a real and lasting solution to the destruction that has blighted the lives of millions of Syrians. With millions having fled to the West, universities are beginning to offer more places to refugees in a concerted effort to utilize higher education to integrate new citizens and equip a new generation with the skills and knowledge that will be needed to rebuild the country. In Germany alone, 3 out of 4 universities have applied to take part in a 100 million pound ($145 million) ministry fund to encourage the integration of refugees into the higher education system
To read the rest of the article please visit this link at devex.com