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Syria’s Academics, Caught ‘Between a Hammer and a Hard Place’


Shells hit the architecture school at Damascus University in 2013.
Mortar fire hit the architecture school, including the cafeteria, above, at Damascus University in March 2013, killing at least 10 people. The government blamed “terrorists,” or the opposition, as academic life in Syria has been reduced to chaos in the war. 

He can’t risk the lives of family members by identifying himself by name, but he is willing to tell his story, a reflection of what has happened to intellectual life in what was once a center of higher education in the Middle East. He was a respected professor at Damascus University whose world fell apart barely three years ago.

In 2015, after a few false starts, he found a new temporary home at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he is working on research about the current crisis in Syria from an insider’s perspective.

“Before the war, there were quite a few thousand Syrian academics, the vast majority of them were graduates from the United States, the UK, Germany, France,” he said. Syrian institutions, once reputable universities, are now in chaos and shambles, often literally caught in the crossfire between a ruthless regime clinging to power at all costs, and brutal, ideologically motivated opposition groups.

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“The Syrian regime and the opposition show the same lack of regard for human rights and international law,” said the professor, an author and reviewer of legal books, adding that the pressures on scholars — “economic, social, psychological” — are intense. Among the victims of indiscriminate and sometimes targeted shelling of campuses are students who in another era, under different circumstances, would have been considered the builders of the country’s future.

“You live under the constant threat of losing your life, or of those you love — your family, your kids,” the professor said “I would bet that there is no family of a Syrian scholar who has not lost one, two or three members. So even if you are O.K. and safe, you still have to care about the others.

“This I can tell you for a fact: In Damascus University, there are around 150 scholars, and more or less not a single one of them has not lost his home,” he said. “All of them are refugees. They are under constant economic pressure because the value of the currency collapsed, so your salary is not enough to feed you and your family as usual. In most cases, we do at least two full time jobs to survive.” He knows of 247 academics who fled Damascus University by 2014, not knowing if they can ever return.

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Although higher education is held in contempt by both the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and armed Islamist groups, the source of the hostility is dramatically different, the scholar said. He said that while Assad is fighting to keep his autocratic grasp on political power, the Islamists are pledged to bring about fundamental civilizational change, under the influence of hard-line Salafist or Wahhabi doctrines represented by the militias of the Islamic State, Al Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham.

“Even if ISIS is defeated, this is not the end of the story,” he said.

When the Syrian civil war entered its most violent phase in 2013, the cluster of universities and colleges on the south side of Damascus, the Syrian capital, became vulnerable on numerous fronts, the professor said. Islamists on the periphery of the city exchange shelling and rocket attacks from the military inside the city.

“In the School of Mechanical Engineering,” he said, “so far, seven or eight students already lost their lives. In another incident, the School of Civil Engineering, last year and the year before, in three major incidents, at least 12 students lost their lives, and in another case four students lost their lives.

“At a private university, the Syrian regime installed two rockets inside the university premises and launched rockets against the Islamists,” he said. “The Islamists retaliate and they launch fire into the university. The school was squeezed between the hammer and a hard place. The Damascus University School of Law has been so far hit four times by militia. It’s a specific target.”

“The opposition would like to stop life in Damascus,” he continued. “The reason is that if students, scholars — and taxi drivers — don’t go to work, the Syrian regime would collapse. So they try sometimes to launch random attacks to prevent people from going out. This boycott would bring the system to its knees.”

The Islamists’ strategy is cynical but clever. “If you go to your school, for example, as a university student or college student, not many people will feel sorry for you because you are expected not to go to class. By going on with your life you are seen by many parties as supporting the Syrian regime. Work is a sign of supporting the regime. Staying at home is a sign of support of the opposition. Whether you like it or not, this is how people see it.”

Adding to the crisis among Damascus academics has been the flight to the capital from other universities around the country where scholars live in peril and unable to work.

Damascus University Faculty of Law, 2010.
Damascus University’s law school is a militia target. Here, the Faculty of Law in 2010, before the war. 

“There are not enough resources, so basically scholars have no space in Damascus University at the moment; it’s so crowded.” With electricity available only six to eight hours a day in the Damascus area and Internet access limited and unreliable, “you can hardly do any research,” he added. To fill positions vacated by academics who fled, he said, his teaching load went from 10 to 12 hours a week in excess of 30 to 35 hours.

Many Syrian academics and intellectuals live in terror of the Assad regime’s collapsing if that means an opening for the entrenchment of Islamists, who see academics as a danger to their worldview. “Salafism treats all academics suspiciously, even though some grow big beards,” he said. “In fact, I would say that to them academics are even more dangerous than the Syrian regime. As long as you don’t attack them publicly, the Syrian regime would leave you alone. But for the Islamist opposition that is not the case, because from their perspective, Islam is the beginning and the end of science. Building on knowledge doesn’t mean a lot for them.”

This professor, who holds a British Ph.D. in intellectual property law and is a specialist in information technology, spent two years looking for a way out of Syria before landing a place at Rutgers under the Scholar Rescue Fund at the Institute of International Education in New York, an independent, donor-funded organization. Since its creation in 2002, the Fund has awarded fellowships to 83 scholars from Syria, who have been welcomed by 70 higher-education institutions in 12 countries.

During the same period, 304 scholars from Iraq were also rescued, in partnership with 170 institutions in 20 countries. Most recently, the Finnish government’s Center for International Mobility became a partner in promoting the free movement of academics and students, offering training in institutions in Finland.

The Syrian law professor and his colleagues were familiar with the rescue fund before they decided to leave Syria, and they made contact online with the Institute of International Education to register their interest. The hurdles were substantial. Once an offer of refuge has been made by a university, a scholar must go to a neighboring nation, often Lebanon or Jordan, to apply for a visa to the country of destination, a step that requires being cleared by a Syrian education ministry security unit. An alibi other than academic distress is needed to leave Syria — so often a claim of medical urgency is made.

For the law professor, an invitation to join a university in Canada was scotched in 2013 when he was denied a Canadian visa. When the opportunity at Rutgers materialized, he tried a route through Britain on a travel document called a Tier Five visa, allowing him to go briefly to Edinburgh University. In London, he secured a United States J-1 visa from the American Embassy, which allows a scholar a five-year stay in the US as long as he or she can find university appointments.

The Scholar Rescue Fund helped him make the transition to Rutgers, where he arrived last August, and where he can stay for two years.

By then, his wife, who still had an American visa, had gone from Damascus to the US with their two children and then moved on to Canada to ask for asylum, which was granted. Now she is in limbo in Canada, without a passport, but hoping to at least get government permission to come to the US to visit her husband. He has been denied a Canadian visa again, without explanation, just a few weeks ago.

So he and his family remain separated. When does he think he may seem them again?

“I have absolutely no idea,” he said. “At least I know my wife and the kids are safe. I think we are lucky to get that far.”


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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Syria’s Academics, Caught ‘Between a Hammer and a Hard Place’
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