Yasmin was at home after a day at work at Al-Baath University in Homs, Syria, when she heard that one of her students had been shot and killed.
From a dangerous daily commute through bomb sites and military checkpoints to the rocket fire that punctuated her lectures, Yasmin’s life had been dominated by Syria’s civil war since unrest began in 2011.
But it wasn’t until she heard the news that a student had been shot by a sniper just outside his home that the gravity of the situation really dawned on her. To this day she has no idea who killed him; it can be hard to determine which killings have been committed by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad’s regime and which by the rebels.
“I think that brought home just how risky it was. Even being at home was dangerous,” says Yasmin (not her real name – some of the names in this article have been changed at the request of interviewees to protect family members in Syria).
Syria’s higher education system is in meltdown. Students and academics have fled the country in droves, and higher education institutions are being targeted by both sides in a civil war that has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people to date.
Some, like Yasmin, have come to work and study in the UK with the support of organisations such as the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (Cara). According to Anne Lonsdale, chair of the charity, a number of the country’s universities have been forced to close, while those that remain are barely functioning.
Syrian-born astrophysicist Rim Turkmani, Dorothy Hodgkin Royal Society research fellow at Imperial College London, says that academics have become targets for militants from both sides because of their influence and relatively high salaries.
“They are important people. They can mobilise their students either way. So unfortunately, they are seen as a threat,” she explains. “Anyone who is interested in taking over an area will usually assassinate the intellectuals and academics. We saw it in Iraq, and now we’re seeing it again.”
Kidnapping is the latest tactic used by the warring sides in Syria, with the United Nations warning that incidents of abductions and disappearances are on the rise in the country.
Mais (not her real name) came to the UK to pursue a PhD a few months ago with the support of Cara. She worked as an academic at a university in Syria for three years. During this time one of her colleagues was kidnapped after being suspected of supporting the Assad regime.
He was held hostage for four days and spent a month in hospital before returning to work, badly bruised and walking with a cane. With unemployment high and jobs hard to come by, he had no option but to go back to work as soon as possible. “We have nowhere else to go,” explains Mais.
Yasmin echoes her comments.
“There was risk but there was also a lot of pressure, because if we didn’t show up for work we could have been fired. We had to go to class,” she says.
It’s not easy as an exile
Although life inside Syria’s universities is becoming impossible, many of those who have left the country are faring no better.
Syrians studying at universities abroad have struggled to pay their fees because the war and international sanctions have made it difficult to access Syrian accounts from abroad. Other Syrians at foreign universities have left education altogether.
Mohamad Husam Helmi, 33, is a doctoral candidate in economics and finance at Brunel University. His family fled the war-ravaged Damascus suburb of Daryya for Egypt after fighting began, but have found work hard to come.
Helmi’s brother, who was training to be a doctor in Syria, has not been able to continue with his studies and was until recently working in a bakery. And in January 2013, Aleppo University, where Helmi worked as a teaching assistant before coming to the UK, was hit by bomb blasts that caused the deaths of 87 people.
State-controlled television said that “terrorists” had launched rockets at the campus, but anti-Assad forces blamed missiles fired by the regime’s aircraft, the BBC reported at the time.
Turkmani recently visited academic refugees living near Syria’s border with Jordan. There she found a university professor sharing a tiny house with 25 other people, unable to feed their families. Turkmani is now attempting to build support for academics in her home country.
She is presently working in partnership with other academics and private companies to fund research by Syrian academics in an attempt to start the renewal of the country’s research system. She has also established a trust to support those scholars caught up in the crisis.
With so many students leaving the country, Turkmani is also seeking to establish an Open University-style institution for exiled and refugee Syrians.
“Many are stranded on the borders, and there isn’t a particular body or organisation that is reaching out to them,” says Turkmani. “No one is looking to hear their views. They’ve been ignored and marginalised.”
From disarray to desperate straits
Before the war, Syrian universities were in poor health. In an academy compromised by a lack of investment and endemic corruption, only 1 per cent of the country’s academics published research papers, according to Turkmani. The war has turned a system that was in disarray into one that is in ruins.
Turkmani, who has long campaigned for a more developed higher education system in Syria, now fears for the academic future of her country.
“This war is going to stop eventually and all we’re going to have is perhaps a quarter of students able to finish their degrees. We’re losing them just when we need them the most. The best students are getting scholarships and going abroad, and I wonder if they will ever come back. When you couple that with the number of school students who are missing out on education, it’s really a disaster,” she says.
For Yasmin and Mais, their worries are more immediate. Mindful of the threat of being kidnapped, neither of them told Syrian colleagues that they were moving to the UK. With electricity available for only a few hours a day back in Syria, they have struggled to contact their friends and family since they arrived here.
“I want to ring my friends and give them hope, but it’s difficult,” explains Yasmin.
Helmi, whose ambition before the war was to return to Syria once he gained his PhD, says he is deeply distressed by the situation.
“When I see universities attacked and see them drained of students and lecturers, I feel devastated,” he says.
“It is not only universities that are being destroyed, but a whole generation. Young people have been out of education for two years since the war started. This is going to create huge problems in the future.”