Some Academics Want to ‘Get Off the Sidelines’ to Help Syrians
NEW YORK CITY–“Education is the orphan of every war,” said Henry Jarecki, a founder of the Scholar Rescue Fund. In a panel discussion at the New School, academics discussed the international community’s efforts to protect the world’s latest orphans, Syrian students and professors, decimated during the Syrian conflict.
“I don’t know if in the tenure of the Scholar Rescue Fund we’ve had these elements of a perfect storm come together as intensely as they have in Syria,” said Mark Angelson, chairman of the fund, which has supported 517 scholars from conflict-torn countries to study abroad in the last 11 years. He described how early in the uprising, universities were bombed, professors and students were attacked and targeted, and those who felt safe enough in their neighborhoods to try to get to school were stopped at checkpoints, where students faced detention by either government or rebel forces. At least 53 professors have been killed, many Syrians have fled from the cities, and according to some estimates, 30 percent of Syrian academics have left the country since the uprisings began.
More than 4,000 people from countries where academics are at risk have applied to the fund, which has supported 270 Iraqi scholars and 14 from Syria.
“We had not even taken a breath from Iraq when applications from Syrians started coming in two years ago. Scholar rescue is a growth industry,” Angelson said.
The discussion came two weeks after the Institute of International Education (IIE), which administers the fund, announced a broad plan to help Syrian scholars, at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative. IIE is joining with the Global Platform for Syrian Students and other groups to pledge $7-million to provide at least 600 scholarships for Syrian students. Organizations including the League of Arab States, the Secretariat of the Union for the Mediterranean, the Council of Europe, the U.S. Department of State, Jusoor, a non-governmental organization of Syrian expatriates, and several governments, are also committed to providing free online test preparation for 500 students, 15 fellowships through the Scholar Rescue Fund, and student mentors.
At the New School panel, two Syrian scholars spoke about the dangers they faced in their home country.
Amal Alachkar, formerly a neuropharmacologist at the University of Aleppo, was researching the neurological causes of breast cancer, Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia until the uprising. She and a very few other faculty members supported peaceful demonstrations. She was interrogated by military intelligence officers, and was lucky enough to have a chance to come to the United States.
“I’m sure if I stayed there, I would be killed, tortured, arrested,” she said. She was later accepted by the Scholar Rescue Fund, and is now a visiting associate professor of pharmacology at the University of California – Irvine. The support saved both her life and her family’s lives, she said.
Moaath Al-Rajab is a “University in Exile Scholar” at Parsons The New School for Design, in Manhattan. He was involved in organizing demonstrations and reaching outside Syria through the news media during the early days of the uprising. He was arrested three times before losing his job at Al-Baath University, in Homs, a city where the conflict has been particularly intense. He fled to Turkey, won support of the Scholar Rescue Fund, and then moved to New York.
The Syrians were joined by Keith David Watenpaugh, head of the Human Rights Initiative at the University of California at Davis, who has done research in Syrian refugee camps. He spoke of the college students he visited at the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, with 140,000 residents.
“They were doing nothing but surviving,” he said. “It was relatively safe, but also a place of great misery.”
He said investing in the future of young Syrians is wise, as they have already shown great intellectual capacity: “They will either become functioning members of the societies where they take refuge, or building blocks of the new Syria in a post-conflict setting.” In addition, he said, if the would-be students are able to continue their studies, they are less likely to become radicalized in the refugee camps.
He spoke of the need for a “University in a Box,” a set of short courses that could be given at refugee camps, so scholars from outside the region could teach math, science, or language courses lasting several weeks and resulting in an official certificate. Such a program would be similar to one in Kenya. Many camp residents are reluctant to commit to long courses, as they often want to believe they will be leaving soon—even if that is not the case. The need for assistance is also great for students who have been out of schools or universities for the past 18 to 20 months, he said, because their connections with education have weakened. Many potential host countries are reluctant to take on those potential students and many others, for fear they will seek to become long-term residents.
During a question-and-answer period, Al-Rajab spoke of an effort to establish a university in Turkey for Syrian refugees, but it proved too difficult to get the school established, as Syrian employers only recognize degrees issued by the current regime.
Alachkar expressed a wish that each of the world’s universities would support one student and one faculty member from Syria. She applauded Turkey for allowing Syrian students to attend its governmental universities for free. If universities in other countries followed suit, rebuilding the country would be easier. “I’m sure a lot of things could be done to minimize this tragedy,” she said.
Gerald Doyle, vice provost of the Illinois Institute of Technology, spoke about how the school in Chicago came to host 35 Syrian students. A boy on the soccer team he coaches had relatives trapped in the uprising.
“Syria became personal to my son, not an abstract set of issues,” he said. “I talk to him all the time about not sitting on the sidelines in life.”
He worked with his administrators, and met with IIE and Jusoor. It was eight weeks before the start of the school year, and the idea of raising $600,000 to support the scholars overwhelmed him, but waiting was not an option. He was buoyed by working with other organizations. More than 450 Syrian students applied to the school during the first week after it announced it would support them.
“We don’t have to do everything ourselves,” he said. “We can just do the one thing we can do.”
A video of the event is here.