Syria gets boost as US is shunned

March 3, 2006

The number of Syrians studying in the US has declined by a third over the past five years, with universities in Syria benefiting directly as they enter a period of dramatic reform.

Syria's universities are also attracting foreign students from around the Middle East as Arab students shun the US in anger at its Government's foreign policy.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the Bush Administration's "war on terror" initiatives saw the number of Syrian students enrolling at American institutions fall from 735 in 2001 to 498 in 2004-05.

"None of my students is going to the US this year," said Miloud Boukri, a teacher at a private French school in Aleppo.

"Most are going to France or Lebanon, but two are even staying here in Syria to study."

Since a 2001 governmental decree allowed private universities to compete with Syria's five state-run universities, eight private institutions have opened their doors to students in the past three years.

For the private universities, in particular, the ramifications of 9/11, the invasion of Iraq and increased political pressure on Syria by the US have helped attract students from middle and upper-income families who would have previously gone abroad to study.

"September 11 played a major role, as parents are worried about letting their children go to the US," Hadi Hamzi, chief of the secretariat at the private Al Qalamoun university, said.

"It is also easier for Syrians to stay in their homeland and get almost the same knowledge for their degree."

Al Qalamoun, which was established three years ago, has 2,000 students.

According to Mr Hamzi, many come from Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Waddah Al-Khatib, director of international relations at the Syrian Ministry of Higher Education, said that there had been a "monumental increase" in the number of Arab students, particularly graduates, enrolling at Syrian universities.

"There has been an increase of more than 100 per cent in the past five years," he said.

Tough visa regulations have also deterred students from applying to American universities.

"Why would I risk studying in the US?" asked Mahmoud Atwi, a Syrian student at the American University of Beirut.

"Aside from the stigma of being an Arab, every year I would have to return home to renew my visa - which could take up to six weeks - and even then I could be turned down," he said.

"What if I'd rented an apartment or bought a car?"

The American University of Beirut has seen a 14 per cent increase in the number of Syrian students since September 2001.

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