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Damascus Campus Shelled: Syrian Students Struggle

AMMAN–A mortar attack on the architecture school at the University of Damascus last week was the latest wound to what is left of Syrian higher education.

Mortar shells slammed into the architectural school’s cafeteria, killing at least 10 students and wounding 20. As is often the case in such attacks, the government and rebels are blaming each other.

The mortar attacks were the second major attack on a Syrian university this year. More than 80 people died in January when two missile attacks that coincided with the first day of midterm exams hit the University of Aleppo.

Syrian academics have mixed feelings about whether higher education in Syria should be suspended to save lives or continued so a generation of students will not lose a chance to get an education.

“If the aim behind this criminal act was to close the University of Damascus, with its history and deep-rootedness, then we stress that it won’t shut down in defiance of the enemies,” said Mohammad Amer al-Mardini, the university’s dean, on the state-run news agency SANA.

Some students believe that continuing to attend classes “is a kind of madness,” said Marwan, a third-year medical student in Aleppo. Last month, he had to duck sniper bullets in a college courtyard. “I ran toward the classrooms while many of my friends lay down on the ground, trying to hide their heads,” he said.

Syria has six public universities, 17 private universities along with many other higher education institutions, with a total of 800,000 students, according to 2010 statistics of the Ministry of Education. The ministry reported in January that the rising violence has cost the country’s higher education system nearly 170 million Syrian pounds, or about $2.4 million, a state newspaper reported.

The University of Damascus, which calls itself the sixth largest university in the world, has campuses in all three southern provinces, while the University of Aleppo has campuses in Idlib and Manbij. However, most of these satellite campuses are now shut down.

Homs and Deir-ez-Zor universities and Aleppo’s campuses in Idlib and Manbij – where fighting has been particularly severe – are totally closed. Professors and students have been displaced, jailed or killed.

The Syrian government’s Council of Higher Education says that because of “the security situation that these [restive] cities are witnessing,” it is allowing students from Al-Ba’ath University in Homs and Hama and from the Idlib branch of Aleppo University to attend their classes and take their exams at other universities.

Many Syrian universities that are technically open face many challenges in making education meaningful. Students who have moved from closed universities to the universities that are still open have swamped university administrations. A member of the English literature department at Damascus University who requested anonymity said that professors are struggling to compensate for material that the students have missed, to put together schedules for final exams and to find a way to correct thousands of exam papers.

At private universities, the situation is worse, with many of them in the dangerous suburbs of cities. “Our university road is called now the highway of death” said Nour, a final-year student in informatics at a private university in Damascus.

Since the beginning of this year, most private universities have moved to city centers in order to keep students and professors safe and to ensure that instruction continues. That has affected the quality of education. “The new classes are too small and are not professionally equipped; there is no library or laboratories for the scientific sections,” said Nour. She had planned to finish her degree this year: “I only went to classes of the first semester in the last year.” This year she registered for classes but hasn’t attended any of them because her parents felt that it wasn’t safe.

Many students have already fled Syria for neighboring countries, where they are trying to continue their studies. In Lebanon, some Syrian students who can afford it are attending the country’s private universities. But those who want to go to the country’s private universities often face linguistic difficulties, since different programs have different language requirements, unlike Syrian universities, where much of the instruction is in Arabic.

“My English is good, but I cannot study the whole curriculum in it,” said Rami Mansor, a second-year student who wants to study business and is looking for a university to join in Beirut. His friend Osama is going to change his academic concentration next year. “I cannot complete my studies in Lebanon due to the different curriculum” said Osama, who was a second-year law student in Aleppo. He may turn to studying Arabic literature, just so he can get a degree.

Political tensions in Lebanon that revolve around alignments with the conflict in Syria worry many Syrian students there. “We want to complete our study quietly away from the political alignments,” said Osama.

In Jordan, the government has only let Syrian students enter private universities. The cost of living in Jordan is high compared to its neighbors and the universities are difficult to get into, the students say. Basel, a Syrian student who studied at the Pharmacy College in Damascus, could not get into a similar Jordanian program. “I won’t give my dream up,” said Basel who is now a waiter in a fast-food restaurant. “I will return as soon as the situation is settled.”

Egypt has allowed Syrians to attend public universities without paying any fees other than the ones local students pay. Syrian students have even been allowed to register for classes after the usual deadlines. More than 2,000 Syrian students have joined the Egyptian universities according to the Egyptian department of Foreign Students Affairs.

In Egypt, the challenges of Syrian students are often bureaucratic. “We want to help our Syrian colleagues here, especially since the registration procedures in the universities were not announced clearly,” said Khaled, a Syrian student who helped to start a Facebook “association” for Syrian students in Egypt. On the Facebook page, students try to answer each others’ questions and give each other tips. There are a lot of facilities at Egyptian universities, Khaled said, but many Syrian students had to leave their country in haste and without all of the necessary paperwork regarding their immigration status and past courses. “There is a lot of paperwork that needs ratification by embassies, which many of the students avoid to visit,” he said.

Obtaining security endorsements can take a long time and delay joining classes. “I personally have not got it, though I registered for more than five months,” said Khaled.

Inside and outside Syria, students are struggling to complete their higher education. “It is not an option; it is a decision to build our desired Syria,” Khaled said.

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