The devastation of conflict for students and scholars

A year ago, Tony Law was studying computer science at his Syrian university – without internet service and while violence raged across his country.

Now Law and most other Syrian students have fled the country’s once-respected universities, a reality that is likely to stunt the country’s recovery when the conflict ends. Those who have stayed are either fighting or doing what they can to survive, he told University World News.

“It’s sad, because the people there have potential,” said Law, 24, who managed to gain a last-minute scholarship to the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he and more than 30 other Syrian refugees have landed up.

“I can’t imagine being there and wasting my time doing nothing.”

Just days after Law left his hometown of Aleppo on a long, harrowing bus ride, the University of Aleppo was bombed, killing dozens of people. It remains unclear who launched the attack.

Students and professors across the country have been killed, arrested or drafted into either the government or opposition armies, sometimes involuntarily. Some universities are in ruins, and, without electricity or internet, few universities are functioning at all.

‘Perfect storm’

“The crisis in Syria has been a perfect storm for higher education,” said Daniela Kaisth, vice president of external affairs and IIE initiatives at the Institute of International Education, or IIE, an organisation which has helped Syrian professors and students relocate to universities in other countries.

“Professors have been specifically targeted. Universities have been targeted for bombing. Students have been prevented from finishing their education.”

About 6,000 Syrian students applied for 150 scholarships offered by the institute, Kaisth said, and about 30 professors have been relocated.

Two exiled professors, pharmacologist Dr Amal Alachkar and computer engineer Dr Moaath al-Rajab, discussed their experiences with an audience last month at New York City’s New School.

“I’m sure if I had stayed there I would be dead or tortured or arrested,” said Alachkar, who fled the University of Aleppo for the safety of the University of California at Irvine. “My life was saved [by leaving Syria], and my family’s life was saved.”

Al-Rajab said he had been arrested three times and tortured by Syrian authorities. His employer, Al-Baath University in Homs, fired him after the third arrest and Al-Rajab fled to Turkey before gaining a ‘scholar-in-exile’ role at the New School.

Both Al-Rajab and Alachkar stressed the urgency to rebuild Syria’s devastated universities or to help displaced students study elsewhere.

Americans should do what they can to help, said Keith Watenpaugh, a professor at the University of California at Davis who directs the university’s Human Rights Initiative.

“I think it’s important for us to invest in the future of young Syrians,” Watenpaugh said at the New York event. “There will be a payoff. They will become productive members of the societies where they settle, or they will be the building blocks of a new Syria.”


Scores of Syrian university students are living in refugee camps in Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries, Watenpaugh and other US researchers found during a survey of the camps. Many of those students do not have the money to study in Jordan or other countries.

The study also noted that Syria’s universities had played an essential role in the country’s social fabric. Religious differences, for example, were put aside on university campuses, researchers found, making them safe havens unlike any other place in the country.

“It is unclear if Syrian universities can recover their former role of providing a space where different groups can interact,” the report noted, “though the hope certainly remains that they can serve as a platform for reimagining post-conflict Syrian society.”

But while the situation has deteriorated considerably, Syrian higher education was far from ideal before the conflict started. Professors say they dared not say anything that could be construed as critical of President Bashar al-Assad.

Alachkar recalled being criticised by some of her peers after removing a photograph of the Syrian leader from her office wall.

“I cannot teach my students to debate or do critical thinking under that framework,” she said. “Even when I speak to my students, I know there are informers everywhere. We say that the walls have ears.”

In many ways, Syria’s conflict has been tied to university campuses since it began in March 2011. Students organised protests after the uprising started, leading to a ferocious crackdown on campuses by the government.

While there were problems, the war has crippled a higher education system that had gained respect. The Institute of International Education, for example, relocated Iraqi scholars to Syrian universities after violence threatened universities there in 2006.

The future

Without functioning universities, Syrians and others say the country faces a tough battle to recover from the war. The country will not only need to rebuild facilities, Alachkar said, but also encourage students and professors to return once it’s safe.

“If there’s no urgency plan being adopted, we really are facing a lost generation,” she said. “We can rebuild infrastructure, but we need to preserve human capital.”

Tony Law expects to finish his bachelor degree in Chicago next year. He doesn’t know when Syria will be safe again, but awaits the day he can return to his family and pursue a career as a software engineer.

“I plan to go back,” he said. “I believe in the future of Syria.”