Supporting academics in exile nearby is key to future

Under the shadow of the ongoing war in Syria the international community has failed to impose possible solutions to defeat terrorism, overthrow the dictatorship and work towards building a civil state that respects all its citizens regardless of their race, religion and sect.

Syrian academics, in particular, are exposed to great risks in this conflict. They are faced with not just expressing their rejection of the oppressive practices of the Syrian regime against its own people and the extremist groups that operate to impose their ideas by force, but also speaking up about what is happening around them – the killing of civilians who are merely asking for their freedom and for their dignity.

In general, there are no Syrian academics in the regions where ISIS has seized control. Most have fled along with large portions of the population. In other parts of the country, where the government is in control, some academics remain but live under a system that has repressed academic freedoms and savaged human rights.

Under such conditions, Syrian academics have one of two bitter choices – either to remain in the government-controlled areas or flee the country. Unsurprisingly, a large number of Syrian faculty members have left the country.

While there are obvious benefits to leaving the country, there are also consequences. If a faculty member leaves the country without permission from the Ministry of Education (which is virtually impossible to obtain), they lose all their entitlements and privileges, including their pensions which so many have devoted long service to contribute to.

The faculty members who have decided to stay can be classified into three categories. The first category is a group of faculty members who favour the regime and support its aggressive actions. Most of these people have graduated from universities in Eastern European countries and are staying in Syria, either due to a lack of academic qualifications or because they do not have the language skills to enable them to work at Western universities.

The second category comprises faculty members who find it is difficult to leave the country either because they do not have the required qualifications to compete in their academic fields internationally or they do not want to risk their lives by leaving the country. They know that life without a secure income abroad would be very difficult and fear the harsh measures the regime would take against them if they left.

The third category includes those who can’t leave due to social and family circumstances.

For those that have stayed academic life is as bad as it was before the war. The corruption, the lack of academic freedom and the persecution of academics all continues.

Syrian academics in exile

In general, Syrian academics who have left the country can be divided into two groups, depending on when they left the country.

The first group made the decision to leave Syria in the first three years of the war. They mostly had foreign papers – particularly from Western countries – which helped to facilitate the departure process for them.

This group also includes those who held certain political stances against the regime's policy of suppressing freedoms and human rights. Many of them were unable to secure academic jobs outside Syria, but had to leave anyway due to the fear of repercussions because of the views they had expressed.

The second group made the decision to depart within the last two years. The reason they left was mostly due to the difficult economic situation and their inability to afford high living expenses caused by spiralling inflation while salaries for faculty members have remained fixed.

In light of the terrible situation some international organisations such as the Scholar Rescue Fund of the Institute of International Education, the Scholars at Risk Network, and Council for At-Risk Academics have offered fellowship grants to many Syrian academics to continue their work overseas at foreign universities.

Unfortunately, many more Syrian academics are not able to obtain such grants.

Syrian academics abroad find themselves in a difficult situation, especially when they are, for many reasons, unable to secure an academic job. For many, academia is more than a job; it is a calling.

Preserving Syrian academic life is the best hope for the future. The current situation requires special support from international organisations to find new and innovative mechanisms to allow Syrian academics to continue their activities outside Syria so that, if peace comes, they can help rebuild the country.

In particular, we need to strengthen cooperation between international organisations and universities in the Middle East and North Africa – especially in Syria’s neighbouring countries – so they can host those academics whose language skills limit their chances of securing fellowships from Western universities.

Not only would this reduce the language barrier constraint, it would also be cheaper, as living expenses in these 18 countries are much lower than in the West. This would allow more scholars to continue their work and extend the time they receive fellowships for.

I would like to thank all the international organisations for their efforts to support and assist Syrian academics and hope they will continue to do so in the future.

Farzan Al-Khalil is a pseudonym. The author of this opinion piece/article has chosen to remain anonymous due to security reasons. This article was first published in