To Be Syrian and a Professor: Recipe for Tragedy
ISTANBUL—Syrian professors have two choices: Stay in their country and risk their lives or scatter to the winds and live largely in isolation.
Regardless of what choice they make, many Syrian academics believe they are a group largely forgotten by international humanitarian organizations.
The fate of many professors at the University of Aleppo, caught in some of the most violent conflict the country has seen, illustrates the difficult decisions that Syrian academics face. Mohamed Gomaa Khalifa, a civil engineering professor at the University of Aleppo, chose to stay. In Aleppo, once known as the economic capital of Syria, civilians suffer from barrel bombs and shortages of food, water, electricity and gas. Desperate residents are cutting trees down for fuel to heat their homes. The professor lived in an area under regime control but still had to wait in a queue for days for a gas cylinder. He died of a heart attack–still waiting.
Syrian universities have lost about one third of their professors, while around 100,000 students have dropped out, according to official statements, which could well be minimizing the problem.
Syrian professors can’t win when it comes to politics. Those believed to support the country’s rulers are threatened by opposition forces. Those believed to support the insurgents are threatened by government forces. With no one allowed to be neutral, many professors flee to neighboring countries or migrate to Europe. A few of them are debating if a new university might be set up in one of the more stable opposition regions or in Turkey.
Ammar Al-Ibrahim, formerly an agriculture professor at the University of Aleppo, had a house situated in an area of conflict between the opposition and the Syrian regime in Aleppo. “The situation is hazardous,” he said “I was summoned for questioning, because I supported the revolutionaries.” He left for Turkey.
But living in neighboring countries is not easy for Syrian academics. They usually can’t teach in Turkish universities since they often can’t speak Turkish.
Muslim Talas, a finance professor at the University of Aleppo, found a job at at Mardin Artuklu University, in southern Turkey near the Syrian border. His Kurdish language has helped him to communicate with some Turkish students who also speak the language.
The Syrian National Coalition, a coalition of opposition groups, formed some educational organizations in November 2012 during opposition meetings in Doha. But professors complain these organizations do not communicate with them or help them find teaching jobs. “I am not in direct contact with the opposition forces,” Talas said, “but I do not see any action on their part to support academics or use their academic competence rather than their political support.”
Abdullah Al-Hossieny, formerly a professor of civil engineering at the University of Aleppo, works as a director of the Free Engineers Coalition, a group of engineers who hope someday to help rebuild the country. He said “All opposition authorities turned their back on university professors and academia and did not provide us with any professional or financial aid.”
Some Syrian academics say they also have been forgotten by international organizations. Al-Ibrahim, the Aleppo professor now in Turkey, said “We reached out to several authorities concerned with scientific research, such as the U.K.-based Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) and the Scholar Rescue Fund, and we did not receive any response so far.”
These organizations say they try to answer such requests. “The standard and the aim is to respond as soon as possible,” says Sarah Willcox, the director of the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund, which is based in New York and places academics in danger at universities in safer countries throughout the world. IIE-SRF has awarded close to 90 academic fellowships, with financial support, to 65 Syrian academics since 2012. Still, the applicants have to be under a genuine threat and have an educational level above a master’s degree. “Sadly, the demand is overwhelming. We make every effort to help those who meet the Fund’s criteria, and, for those who do not, to send information on other programs,” says Willcox.
CARA is similar to the Scholar Rescue Fund but will consider applicants who only have a master’s degree. Kate Robertson, the Middle East Programme manager for CARA, says calls for help from within Syria have a higher priority than academics who have already managed to flee. “The risk factor is more pressing if they’re still in Syria,” she says, “We are getting three to four applications per week and at least 50 percent are from inside Syria.”
New York University’s Scholars At Risk organization has received 100 applications from Syrian academics, 70 of which came in the past two years. Scholars at Risk also places scholars all over the world, like CARA and the Scholar Rescue Fund.
A common theme amongst the scholars reaching out to these organizations seems to be a life on the move. Radwan Ziadeh, the director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a U.S.-based think tank, left Syria in 2007. His human-rights activism made him a government target even before the current conflict began. “There is an arrest warrant out for me,” he explains. “But I always have hope that I will return to Syria one day.”
Since leaving Syria, Ziadeh has worked at Harvard, Columbia, Georgetown and universities in New York before arriving at his current position in Washington D.C. His extended family are scattered around Saudia Arabia, Jordan and Turkey.
Scholars At Risk have just secured a scholarship and post- doctoral placement at Ghent University in Belgium for a food scientist, Kassem Al-Sayed Mahmoud. He has lived in France, Turkey and Qatar since he fled Syria.
Mahmoud got his doctorate, but then had to fulfill national service requirements in the Syrian army. He decided to leave because he didn’t want to prop up the regime. “I couldn’t support the army’s actions against innocent civilians,” he says.
He hid for a month in the outskirts of Damascus before using his brother’s identification to cross military checkpoints on his way to the Turkish border. He has tried to stay in touch with old university colleagues, but it hasn’t been easy. He hopes to see them again in Syria one day.
Based in Rayhana in Turkey, a group of university professors established the Union of Free Syrian Academia, which has 200 members so far. The union seeks to protect the academics, help them find jobs, and possibly support the research of those who might later contribute to Syria’s reconstruction. But without money, the union has been able to do little.
Many academics agree on the need to establish a new university in areas held by the opposition forces. Al-Hossieny said “We hope that the opposition authorities will be able to establish a university in the liberated areas, which would alleviate the sufferings of our students and limit the emigration of Syrian professors.”
Not surprisingly, many people believe that establishing a university in opposition-held areas is impossible due to poor security. But such a university might be established in Turkey, some say.
Unless some such opportunity comes to Syrian professors to teach, most Syrian professors have no choice but to leave the region. “Any available job opportunity would determine my future,” said Al-Ibrahim. “If this situation persists, I will have to seek asylum in any European country to save my family.”
* Benjamin Plackett also contributed to this story.