Syria’s exiled academics tell their stories

Researchers have much to contribute to the study of law, education, engineering and healthcare, suggests new collection

May 22, 2016
Syrian refugees leaning out of train windows
Source: iStock
Academics are among the refugees – such as these crossing Croatia – fleeing fighting and often persecution in Syria to build new lives elsewhere

A new collection showcases the stories and research of seven Syrian academics who have been able to start rebuilding their careers in exile.

Syrian Academics in Exile, edited by Paul O’Keeffe and Zsuzsanna Pásztor, is a special online publication by New Research Voices: International Journal of Research from the Front-line.

Unlike many countries suffering a major humanitarian crisis, Syria had “a quite strong and accessible higher education system prior to the war”, James King, the assistant director of the New York-based Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund, explains in an interview.

Yet today, leading institutions are “not operating at all or…at limited capacity”; they are allowed to hire only faculty who have completed their military service; exams have to be rescheduled for weeks because of bombing; and perhaps 1,500 or 2,000 professors have now become refugees.

Although the IIE-SRF has “supported more than 600 scholars from 55 countries”, continues Mr King, its “work has been dominated by Syria” since late 2014. Yet while its one- and two-year fellowships can offer a lifeline to scholars seeking to rebuild careers in neighbouring countries or across the globe, the obstacles remain overwhelming.

“As hundreds of thousands of Syrians seeking refuge make their way to our shores,” the editors of Syrian Academics in Exile note in their introduction, “migration systems are collapsing, border fences are shooting up and far right ideologies which demonise all migrants are gaining ground.”

Their collection is specifically designed to “serve as a reminder of the variety of Syrian academic expertise that exists around the world and offer a window into the wide variety of research being carried out by scholars in exile, not only in the social sciences, but also in other natural and applied sciences, e.g. engineering, healthcare, philosophy and in many interdisciplinary fields”.

Topics covered range from the “difficulties of refugee education in Lebanon” to “sexuality and lesbian subjectivity in contemporary Arab literature” and the role of data analytics in “improv[ing] modern healthcare services and online education performance”.

Each of the scholars is also interviewed about their experiences in Syria, their life in exile and their hopes for the future.

Agronomist Ahmad Sadiddin, now in the second year of an IIE-SRF fellowship at the University of Florence, for example, describes how he fled Syria after being “regarded as a suspect [by his] commanders” during military service in 2010, who “preferred to keep [him] in the barracks and under their control”.

Yet he hopes that what he is learning abroad may yet “help to open a kind of dialogue in the country…one day this exile experience may turn out to become an enrichment to the Syria of the future”. 

The volume concludes with an overview of the Jamiya Project, which “aims to reconnect Syrian students with their higher education while in exile”, with a view to “preventing the loss of an entire generation of education”.

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