Ursula Oaks, Managing Director for External Relations, Al-Fanar Media

    Sixty-two. That’s the number of Syrian refugees who were accepted into the United States in fiscal year 2018. (In 2016, the number was 12,500.) Meanwhile, 5.6 million Syrians have left the country, displaced by a war now entering its ninth year. Inside Syria, more than 6 million people are displaced, and four out of five live in poverty.

    With the doors of the United States essentially closed, scholarships for Syrians outside Syria dwindling, and the humanitarian needs so overwhelming, we might understandably wonder: What can be done to support the educational aspirations of Syrian young people and Syrian professors?

    Last fall I hosted a Syrian professor in Washington and New York City for two days of roundtable discussions with audiences in search of answers to that question. His visit here was part of a growing effort by my organization Al-Fanar Media – a nonprofit news organization dedicated to covering higher education, research and culture in the Arab region – and others to raise awareness of and action to support individual, sometimes small-scale interventions that could make a big difference to those still struggling to pursue education inside Syria.

    Higher education in Syria has been seriously harmed by the war, with an estimated $35 million in damage to the sector’s infrastructure (according to government sources). Somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of Syrian professors have left the country, and inflation has caused the collapse of the average monthly salary of those still there – from $1,500 in 2010 to $150 today. Students struggle to attend classes and navigate damaged buildings, electricity cuts, checkpoints, and a lack of almost everything, from basic laboratory materials to textbooks. Sanctions have crippled the country, and although there is an exception for educational activities under the U.S. Department of Treasury’s OFAC guidelines, online educational portals are often blocked inside Syria.

    Still, Syrians are proud of the fact that many of the country’s universities have remained open during the war, despite, in some cases, having to relocate. Today there are seven public and 22 private universities in operation. My Syrian guest painted a picture that was much more nuanced, and hopeful, than what one might expect. His story also belied the idea that “all of the best have left.” Despite sometimes harsh conditions and almost complete isolation from the international academic community, learning, teaching, and research continue. The power is mostly on, however intermittently, especially in Damascus and the surrounding area, and there is reasonably reliable Internet, at least for those who can afford it at home or on a mobile device. Classes are being held and students are writing theses and dissertations.

    Sometimes what’s needed, according to this professor and other Syrian academics and students we’ve hosted and talked with, are sometimes the simplest things. A pharmacy student needs an up-to-date pharmacy textbook. A curriculum update effort needs a bit of outside consultation. A doctoral candidate needs a committee member with a particular type of expertise who can Skype occasionally and provide input. Students and professors are hungry for access to scholarly databases and opportunities to connect with their counterparts outside the country. They need help with English proficiency or writing a thesis. In short, what is often needed is person-to-person support.

    There is understandable concern that without a political resolution to the Syrian conflict, engagement with public universities in Syria could be viewed as supporting the government. Many international donors also remain cautious, concerned about crossing a “red line” and reluctant to become involved before a clear diplomatic framework for reconstruction and accountability for potential war crimes for all participants in the Syrian conflict are in place. But a recent report from Oxfam and the Danish Refugee Council appeals strongly for more to be done now to respond to the needs of Syrians. We must, the report urges, begin thinking about and interacting with these thorny issues in a different way.

    It is in this spirit that my organization Al-Fanar Media is facilitating conversations and activities to support the educational aspirations of Syrians inside Syria. Last May we co-hosted, with the British Council and the American University of Beirut, a roundtable discussion on politically neutral ways to support the educational needs of youth in Syria. Attendees included international organizations, Syrian professors and students, and nongovernmental organizations. Last fall, we conducted a survey of graduate students inside Syria that asked about their greatest challenges and needs, the report of which we presented at a follow-up meeting of representatives of major Western NGOs and European Union officials concerned with education in Syria, in Brussels last November. And in February we again hosted Syrian academics, this time for a tour of six universities in the United Kingdom.

    By bringing together groups of people to learn and explore ideas of what could be done, we want to catalyze interest and action. And it’s working. As a result of contacts made during his visits, the professor I hosted is planning a program at his university on “peace engineering,” a new discipline that seeks to use technology to prevent violence. Some of our U.K. university hosts have struck up communication with our Syrian guests to look at jointly applying for research grants to support Syrian educational initiatives. And momentum is growing behind a more public effort by Western NGOs and universities to urge more support for education inside Syria. One idea is professional development workshops for Syrian professors, possibly held in Lebanon. Another is an informal academic network for Syrians studying in the United Kingdom and their counterparts back home. For individual Syrian students and educators, the impact of these efforts could be transformative, and could give an important psychological lift to Syrians devoted to education who have been shunned for many years.

    Work we do now on this issue will only help to advance the far greater task that lies of ahead, of reimagining with the Syrian people a higher education system that can contribute to the country’s rebuilding. We stand ready to help make connections, organize opportunities for discussion, and provide reporting and data to help build awareness and understanding. We don’t run programs or give grants, but we can serve as an impartial, credible convener and an independent voice. We hope that organizations, individual faculty members, administrators, and students in the United States will take a closer look at how they might be able to engage in this work. We invite you and your colleagues to contact us with your ideas and questions. Ursula Oaks can be reached in Washington at 703 231 4995 or uoaks@alfanarmedia.org.


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