Kamal Al Haj has gone from being the dean of media studies at Damascus University to being a freelance academic in Bielefeld, a city in northern Germany. But the 46-year-old professor casts his journey as being more about career development than being a stereotypical refugee.
His path out of Syria is a common one: Around 20 percent of university professors in Syria have left their jobs during the war, according to Atef Naddaf, the higher education minister. At the faculty of media, a quarter of the professors have left.
Al Haj moved to Germany almost 20 months ago. He left behind his family and friends in Damascus, as well as more than 15 years of experience in media research. He made his decision only after considering all his options in Syria.
“I consider it an academic research trip abroad,” Al Haj said. “I felt that academic research in Syria wasn’t worth it anymore. I left to develop myself professionally and academically.”
Directly after graduating from the journalism department at Damascus University in 1992, Al Haj embarked on his media-studies career.
At the age of 31, Al Haj graduated from Cairo University with a Ph.D. in media research. His thesis had a globalization theme and was focused on “the impact of foreign TV production materials on cultural programs in Syrian and Egyptian television.”
Al Haj became famous at Damascus University in 2011 as the dean of the faculty of media. Syrian professors have a reputation for being distant and impersonal with their students, and Al Haj was the first dean to start a Facebook page where students could write directly to him. It was called “Contact the Faculty of Media Dean, Kamal Al Haj.”
“He used to write and share the posts himself,” said Alaa Ehsan who graduated from the faculty in 2013. “I went to his office more than once. He was simple and respectful.”
Dealing with students’ complaints in the newly opened faculty was just of many problems Al Haj had to address. The faculty was created from the former journalism department. The new faculty was given fully-equipped broadcast studios for students to train in, but no one knew how to use them.
“Professors had strange specializations, two or three focused on ‘media techniques.’” Al Haj said. “It was later understood that it meant ‘how to turn a machine on and off.’”
As the dean, he pushed the university to offer training for newly hired engineers so they could instruct students in skills such as lighting, video editing and operating cameras. He arranged partnerships between the university and private media outlets to help prepare students for jobs, since internships had not existed previously.
“Those training courses were individual initiatives with no real cooperation between the university and those facilities. They were just to acquaint the students with the facilities, not to really train them on media and journalism production,” Al Haj admitted.
Most journalism classes at Damascus University were theoretical, and very little journalistic training was offered even with the new studios. One reason was that professors who taught journalism had no journalism experience. Legally, professors could not belong to the Journalists Syndicate. Most professors resented the attempt at changing the curriculum.
“He was serious, working long hours, and he wanted to modernize the faculty,” said Nahla Abu Rachid, a former colleague. “But he was a bit aggressive and too strict. We couldn’t understand that this was the way he should be and not to take it personally.”
The faculty’s library was empty. “It was a beautiful and modern library, it just didn’t have any books,” Al Haj said. To fill the shelves, Al Haj brought his own books and asked the ministry of culture to provide some. But a year after the young dean finished his two-year term, most of the books had vanished, apparently spirited away by professors and students.
When asked whether his life was at risk in Syria, Al Haj preferred not to answer, but insisted that if he had stayed there, he would have continued to teach in his former typical way.
Al Haj left Damascus for Beirut, and then took a plane to Istanbul, in autumn 2015, when Turkey did not yet require visas for Syrians. He described his boat trip from the Turkish shore to Greece as “safe and comfortable.” Syrian friends and relatives were waiting to help him when he arrived in Germany.
Almost two years after his trip to Europe, Al Haj found himself serving on the academic evaluation committee for a masters’ student he was supervising, as part of his work at the Arab Open Academy, in Denmark.
He met virtually with the student, who was in southern Turkey, along with two other committee members, who were on their laptops in Stockholm and Baghdad. The student, Anas Alkurdy, had graduated from Damascus University seven years before and was once Al Haj’s student.
“The presence of Professor Kamal gave me a motivational push to continue. I would text him over WhatsApp with questions and he never took more than 24 hours to reply,” said Kurdy whose thesis was about the coverage of refugees on Arab TV stations.
Al Haj is one of seven Syrian professors at the academy. “The number of Syrian professors at the academy is starting to grow, and I am depending on them more. My trust of Al Haj grows every day,” says Walid Al-Hayali, the founder of the Arab Open Academy. The academy was started in 2005 when a wave of Iraqi refugees fled to Europe. The academy teaches largely in Arabic and is still seeking international accreditation.
To work as an academic in Germany will take time, as Al Haj will need to speak German more fluently. When applying for jobs, he describes his German as “akzeptiert,” or acceptable. He passed the test for the language level that is needed for a refugee integration course in Germany, but he needs to improve his fluency in order to teach and write in the language. He needed eight months to get his Syrian degrees accepted in Germany. “The foreign degree is equivalent to a German doctorate,” the equalization document noted.
Going back to Syria one day is a possibility, but he does not know when.
“The German society is very good,” Al Haj said. “It likes organized work, respects the other and it is merit-based. I am still at the beginning of my academic and scholarly career.”