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“I felt good. I felt human.”

May 2 2024

Sham University, near Azaz, north-west Syria
Sham University, near Azaz, north-west Syria

A participant in our Syria Programme tells his story, of braving an earthquake and the Assad regime to continue teaching his students

As the long violence in Syria continues, thousands of students who grew up during the civil war exist in a state of nervous academic limbo. An uneasy stalemate has led to the de facto separation of the north-west of the country, where the now-grown children of the conflict must seek to satisfy their aspiration for higher education against a background of violence and dire poverty.

Small independent universities do exist, and the academics working in them are committed to serving their students, many of whom cannot afford to go abroad to study and are often tied to northern Syria by family commitments anyway. But these institutions are severely under-resourced, with too few staff and shortages of essential equipment. On top of that, since they are operating outside any national qualification framework, their degrees are simply not recognised by the rest of the world. Graduates do get their degree certificates – but these are only valid in north-west Syria, and there are few ‘graduate jobs’ there.

Dr Abdulkader Rashwani is a chemist by training, with a particular interest in recycling concrete debris – his work was the focus of an article in The Guardian in March 2023. A long-standing participant in Cara’s Syria Programme, he recognises that many students at Sham University, where he works, face major challenges. While they know the value of higher education, they also know that there is very limited need in north-west Syria for graduates of what Rashwani terms ‘traditional subjects’ – medicine, engineering and the like.

“People here in the north of Syria are still directed towards medicine, or maybe to become engineers – but we have no industry here,” Rashwani explains. “We have no trade, we have no factories. So this generation has almost no choice when it comes to work. They could work in a small business or become a teacher. But they do not go into the humanities or the arts. Those departments don’t have enough staff to function. We have been thinking for a long time: how can we cover or close these gaps?”

The ‘gaps’ affect all departments. “Civil engineering, for example,” he continues. “We have only one PhD holder in our Civil Engineering Department. The rest of the staff only have Master's degrees. Or take the English department: in all of northern Syria, there are perhaps one, maybe two PhD holders in English Literature.”

But how is it that the English Department of a university like Sham has so few qualified staff? The answer is the brain drain that affects every academic department in the region. The students at these universities may face problems in finding decent jobs, but their lecturers have more opportunities, in countries where salaries are higher, departments are fully equipped and staffed and, crucially, they are celebrated for their expertise and teaching – and not threatened.

These threats – sometimes just the day-to-day reality of teaching in a warzone, but sometimes targeted at specific individuals – constitute what Rashwani refers to, modestly, as “the security situation”.

While Rashwani teaches in northern Syria, he immigrated to Turkey during the worst of the Syrian civil war and still lives there, crossing back into Syria to work. Turkey has to date taken in over 3.5 million Syrians fleeing the horrors of Assad’s crackdown on dissent, and there are inevitably tensions, sometimes stoked by local politicians for political gain, particularly at election time. But Turkey is still safer than Syria - especially for academics opposed to the regime.

“Every week, when I go to Syria, I’m thinking, is the border going to be closed, or not?” he explains. “Because every time there is a military operation near the university, they close the border. For example, a few months ago, we got information about a possible security threat and were told, ‘you need to escape to Turkey, and you need to go now - because if you don’t, the border will be closed and you will be trapped.’”

“How can we work in this situation?” he asks, rhetorically. “How can I attract staff? How can I ask my colleagues to go to Syria if I can’t keep my staff and my students safe?”

What keeps Rashwani working in Syria is a patriotic loyalty to his country and his personal loyalty to his students. But he is painfully aware that others make other decisions. In the time that he has been teaching at Sham University, twelve of his colleagues have left for Europe, with no intention of returning.

“You can imagine the effect this has on the academic situation here,” he says.

Conflict and a lack of resources are not the region’s only problems. On 6 February 2023 the first of several earthquakes rocked Turkey and northern Syria, killing more than 50,000 people. More than three times that number are estimated to have been injured. Among the dead were members of Rashwani’s own family.

“First of all, I'm very, very thankful for Cara,” he says, when asked about the devastation caused by the earthquake. “There are very few organisations which, just ten hours after a disaster like that, would be sending out emails and WhatsApp messages to ask, ‘Are you okay? Is your family OK?’”

“That was the first step. Their second step was announcing a charity drive to support academics in northern Syria. The people working with Cara who were affected by the earthquake were immediately given aid. Those who were most seriously affected, who had lost their houses, for instance, got more. Cara supported us, one hundred percent, in this situation.”

“After the earthquake happened, I was living in my car with my family,” Rashwani recalls. “We couldn’t go home. But Cara called, to check on me and my family. And that encouraged me: that there were people, even people in another country so far away, who would call to check on me, my friends, and my family. I didn’t get this even from my own government; the Assad regime, they don’t care. So, having people from Cara call to check on me, to support me - at that point, I felt important. I felt human.”