PhD student’s flight from Syria inspires educational research

Cambridge researcher dreams of returning home to war-stricken country

July 1, 2018
Hiba Salem
Hungry for knowledge: research by Hiba Salem (above) reveals a strong appetite for education among Syrian refugees

It was in March 2011, when Hiba Salem was completing a degree in computer science at the International University for Science and Technology on the outskirts of Damascus, that Syria sank into civil war and her “once safe country had become overrun with chaos”.

On one occasion, she recalled, “the sky unleashed bombs the size of bricks on to a street where I was driving. Sometimes, the only thing that has prevented me from going up in smoke has been a few short metres walked this way instead of that way.”

Forced to leave an initial job as a programmer in “a very fragile area of Damascus”, Ms Salem found alternative work but “kept thinking about the future of Syria. The UN had warned that Syria’s children were the ‘lost generation’, uprooted from education with little hope for a normal childhood. I felt an urgent sense of responsibility to do something.”

After looking at “the key issues, the research being done and not being done”, Ms Salem came up with a proposal focused on the actual experience of school-age refugees rather than just quantitative data about enrolment and dropout rates. Much to her surprise, she was accepted for an MPhil in educational research at the University of Cambridge, which enabled her to leave Syria in October 2014.

The master’s included a project on nine- to 11-year-old Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and Ms Salem followed this up with a PhD that allowed her to spend three months in Jordan last year, interviewing children aged between 13 and 16. Supported by the Queen Rania Foundation for Education and Development, she was the first person to be granted access to do research among refugees in Jordan’s public schools – where Syrian children study in separate classes after hours.

Pupils were asked to keep personal (and often very poignant) journals, and some of the results now appear in a paper published by Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, titled The Voices of Reason: Learning from Syrian Refugee Students in Jordan. Although respondents touch on issues of isolation and injustice, prejudice and harassment, often exacerbated by segregated education, they also reveal an immense appetite for continuing their education. A 15-year-old boy has taught himself “how to programme and…want[s] to be the founder of a new mathematical theory. I spend my time at home working on it every day. I want my name to go down in books.” A 16-year-old girl hopes to become a lawyer because she has “seen so much injustice committed to children, women, and refugees. I want to help defend people.”

Yet the reality, according to Ms Salem, is that “only 1 per cent of refugees worldwide graduate from higher education. In Jordan, financial pressures meant that [secondary school] students were thinking how to help their parents. Boys thought that they should probably work and girls that they should get married. I spoke to students who had huge aspirations and knew exactly what they would study, but were very much aware that this was not going to happen.”

If we want to address this, Ms Salem argued, we need more educational research that looks at “experiences and contexts” and “the deeper reasons” why so many drop out. Furthermore, although it had been “wonderful to see more scholarships advertised directly to refugee students over the past couple of years”, she was doubtful whether they were “actually reaching people such as the Syrians I have met, who don’t even know what Cambridge is”. And “the very strict academic requirements” often failed to take account of how refugees were being educated.

For the moment, Ms Salem has a double life. She enjoys all that Cambridge has to offer in the way of “formals, May Balls, seminars and punts”. She has managed to find a few compatriots in the city, albeit none who lived in Syria right up to the outbreak of war. Yet meanwhile, every few months, she returns to a very different world to see her parents and her sister, “travelling to Lebanon by plane and making my way to Damascus from Beirut via cabs through a dozen checkpoints”. Excited by the possibility of going on to do postdoctoral research, she sees this as a way of acquiring tools that could be valuable in rebuilding Syria. She definitely “wants to go home at some point. They don’t need people like us at the moment. When I can help in Syria, I will be doing that.”

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