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Refugee Scholars Examine Higher Ed Crisis in Syria

NEW YORK—Refugee Syrian scholars and researchers convened Monday night for a panel discussion hosted by the Institute of International Education and The Center for Public Scholarship at The New School to examine how education is being affected by the country’s war crisis.

“War and destruction have led to the decimation of educational facilities, stalled research, and disrupted education for thousands,” said New School President David Van Zandt in his introduction for the evening.

During the panel session, titled Syrian Higher Education in Crisis: The Road Forward, Mark Angelson, chair of the Scholars Rescue Fund at IIE, led a chat with refugee academics Dr. Moaath Al-Rajab and Dr. Amal Alachkar, along with Dr. Keith Watenpaugh of the University of California, Davis’s Human Rights Initiative, which highlighted the struggles faculty and students are enduring under Syria’s repressive regime and the challenges for the Middle Eastern country’s future.

“Education is the orphan of every war,” said Angelson in his opening remarks, noting his organization’s efforts, which have helped 517 scholars from 50 nations across the globe in the last 11 years. Of these, 30 have been Syrian scholars who have received safe haven through fellowships.

“We’re working together to rescue scholars from the world’s most threatened national capital,” Angelson said. “We’ve seen the news this year about tragic bombings in the University of Aleppo and the University of Damascus. Students and professors have been targeted and are in terrible danger.”

He continued, “Some are targeted in retribution for their connection to one side or another, others are forced to abandon their homes and universities to escape shelling and many are simply displaced from their classrooms because it’s simply too dangerous to do their work. More recently, scholars have been victims of kidnappings, threats and blackmail.”

Citing a report, Angelson said that 30 percent of Syrian academics have fled their homeland since the conflict began. Al-Rajab, a fellow from Syria at The New School’s Parsons School for Design’s University in Exile program, endured three arrests, being threatened with torture, and was forced to flee the country at the end of 2012. He was only able to find out about opportunities with the University in Exile program in Turkey because the Internet in his home country was monitored and shoddy, as electricity in rebel areas was restricted.

“Even when people have access to the Internet, they can’t access the websites they want to access,” said Al-Rajab. While Al-Rajab’s work in design and technology has nothing to do with politics, even mentioning dysfunctional aspects of the government in class got him in trouble.

Alachkar, who started the first neuroscience laboratory in her home country, said many of her medical and pharmaceutical studies were targeted or even killed.

“Now I have the opportunity to speak and have my voice and their voice heard,” said Alachkar, noting the death toll has risen to more than 100,000 and about 200,000 people have been detained. “One mother went to the university to check her son’s grades, and she found out he died,” she said, adding that the mother responded with, “‘He was killed, but I am happy he graduated.’”

Indeed, the heartbreaking stories of persecution and violence have haunted many, but another real tragedy of the Syrian uprisings is that the country’s human capital is idling in refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan. Keith Watenpaugh of the Human Rights Initiative went to a camp where students studied computer science, veterinary science and law. “They were the intellectual capital of the next Syria, and they were in this camp living in boredom,” said Watenpaugh, who came out with a report in May on his fieldwork, titled, “Uncounted and Unacknowledged.”

“We can reflect on their situation and help.”

Al-Rajab agreed, noting that Syria’s adult literacy rate, which is over 80 percent, sets it apart from many of its neighboring countries and could provide a road for rebuilding in the future.

“Programs like this will help us preserve our capital,” he said, adding that one of the major issues he sees is that families are moving to rural areas, away from the fighting, for protection, noting, however, that these parts of the country have scant educational resources.

Still, in the face of it all, “There are some Syrians still teaching, [and] students are risking their lives,” said Al-Rajab.

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