Who among us has not felt utterly horrified and inadequate as a tide of human flotsam and jetsam has washed up on southern European shores in a summer of exodus from war-torn Syria? Something must be done, we think, as another news bulletin ends, and the pictures of refugees fade into a chirpy weather forecast sponsored by your local gas company, which will be keeping you warm this winter, whatever the weather.
Something must be done: four words that are usually well meant, but tend to achieve little.
Some act – giving money, perhaps, or old clothes and blankets. Bob Geldof wants to put up a refugee family at his house in Kent. The Archbishop of Canterbury will let another use a cottage in the grounds of Lambeth Palace. But in the face of weary columns marching north along motorway hard shoulders towards London or Berlin, it’s hard not to feel defeated before we’ve even tried to assist.
But universities are assisting. And as we report in our cover story this week, what started as isolated, cobbled-together responses are adding up to something with more significant scale.
This is not pure charity. A point made in our feature is that Syria is an educated nation. Damascus University is almost 100 years old, and not so long ago had more than 100,000 students.
A recurring theme in interviews with the young, mainly male refugees in the first wave to arrive in Europe were the answers they gave when asked what they wanted to do with their lives. While young African migrants often say they want to be footballers, those from Syria typically want to continue their studies – most often, it seems, to train as doctors.
For some this may be what they think interviewers want to hear, but it is still striking.
As Talal Al-Mayhani, a Syrian researcher at the University of Cambridge, explains in our feature, “education is important to the Syrian middle class”. Overshadowed as it is by the violence and destruction, it is no small tragedy that the Syrian crisis, which as Al-Mayhani notes has led to an estimated 250,000 deaths and 12 million people displaced, has also “torn apart” academia.
“The world’s response to the Syrian crisis has been inadequate, disorganised and unsustainable,” Al-Mayhani writes. “The UK can and should do more.”
Universities, he believes, should lead the way.
There are many ways they can do so. For example, through the European Commission scheme, science4refugees, which matches those with a scientific background with institutions prepared to offer jobs, internships or training. Or by answering the Campaign for the Public University’s call for every institution to offer at least five scholarships and bursaries for those fleeing from war.
Al-Mayhani makes a similar suggestion: “UK universities can play an important role by offering scholarships and fellowships to Syrian scholars and graduates. They could set up joint programmes with universities in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and contribute to temporary university campuses there for Syrian refugees. What is needed is a real will, and plans of action.”
There’s also a need for bravery, from both individuals and institutions, to conquer feelings of helplessness – to turn “something must be done” into something can and is being done.