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Symposium Highlights Role of Syrian Academics in Post-Conflict Recovery

Syrian academics in exile need opportunities to work and grow professionally, so they will be able to help rebuild a better higher education system when they go back, speakers at a conference on the future of the academic community in Syria said. They also emphasized that investment in higher education can prevent radicalization in war-torn countries.

Malcolm Grant, president of Cara, the Council for At-Risk Academics, said grants of less than 10,000 pounds ($13,300) “can achieve an extraordinary amount of research in this environment.”

He was speaking at the start of a five-day online symposium that reviewed work done since Cara launched its Syria Programme in 2016, to support academics affected by the Syrian crisis.

The symposium, “Voices from the Syrian Academic Community”, was organised with the support of the British Academy and the Royal Society. It ran from December 6 to 10.

The symposium looked at more than 50 studies in areas including social capital, gender, agriculture, infrastructure and food security in line with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. The symposium’s cultural programme included events on women writers, heritage preservation, and a musical performance. (See a related article, “Scholars Fleeing War-Torn Middle East Find Safety in U.K. Universities.”)

“I am pleased to see many contributions from academics in social sciences and humanities to highlight the roles of these disciplines in sustainable peace and preventing violence.”

Simon Goldhill
Vice president of the British Academy and a professor of Greek literature and culture at the University of Cambridge

Supporting Syrian Academics in Exile

In his keynote speech, Simon Goldhill, vice president of the British Academy and a professor of Greek literature and culture at the University of Cambridge, highlighted the role that Syrian academics will play in rebuilding their country.

“I am pleased to see many contributions from academics in social sciences and humanities to highlight the roles of these disciplines in sustainable peace and preventing violence,” he said.

Besides the British Academy’s support to academics in exile since 1933, Goldhill talked of his personal experience in supporting Syrians in the United Kingdom.

“Over the past five years, I have been hosting Syrian refugees in my house; some arrived on a lorry. I also helped academics from the Middle East to be hosted by Cambridge,” he said. “This is what we need to do as an academic community, to help each other to produce the conditions of academic freedom.”

Grant, who is also chancellor of the University of York, recalled Cara’s efforts to support refugee academics since the Nazi era.

The British-based charity was set up in the 1930s to help scholars fleeing Nazi Germany. It later helped victims of repression in Eastern Europe and Latin America. More recently, its focus has turned to Africa and the Middle East, in particular Iraq and Syria. (See a related article, “Refugee Scientists: The Unknown Number.”)

No Clear Social Mission

For his part, Abulnaser Aljasem, an associate professor in the Faculty of Economics at Mardin Artuklu University, in Turkey, said the role of higher education “is suspended now in Syria due to lack of academic freedom, the lack of independent higher education institutions”.

Samir Alabdullah, at right, is director of the Arab Cultural Forum in Istanbul and director of the Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies. He spoke about the situation for Syrian Christians.
Samir Alabdullah, at right, is director of the Arab Cultural Forum in Istanbul and director of the Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies. He spoke about the situation for Syrian Christians.

University administrators had no clear social mission, he said. “They play a very weak role in society. However, they all see the social necessity to keep providing higher education.”

Calling for support to institutions that respect academic freedom, he said: “We need to establish a new university that embraces the values of peace and social capital in its tools, departments, and architecture.”

Samir Alabdullah, director of the Arab Cultural Forum in Istanbul and manager of the Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies, examined the situation of Syrian Christians since 2011.

Noting their neutrality during the uprising and their reluctance to be involved in armed conflicts, he said Syrian Christians had been subject to taxes by armed groups and had the Kurdish language forced on them by the apparently secular Syrian Democratic Forces.

Grants of less than 10,000 pounds ($13,300) “can achieve an extraordinary amount of research in this environment.”

Malcolm Grant
President of Cara, the Council for At-Risk Academics

“The SDF imposed learning Kurdish in their areas of control and prohibited the languages of Assyrians. Arabic is also well integrated in the Christian society and some conduct ceremonies in Arabic,” he said. “There are trials to alienate the group from the wider society.”

Ancient Heritage at Stake

The destruction and looting of Syria’s heritage is usually attributed to the conflict. Adnan Almohamad, an honorary research fellow at Birkbeck, University of London, explored other causes.

A former lecturer in ancient ceramics at the University of Aleppo, Almohamad said “the lack of laws after the conflict led the owners of confiscated lands that contain archaeological sites to take the opportunity to build on or loot.

“As a conservative society, Syrians used to think it is forbidden to loot. However, some religious leaders said artifacts are public properties and can be sold to meet the basic life needs. This led to a flourish in the smuggling of looted antiquities.” (See a related article, “Amid the Destruction of Syrian Antiquities, Some Restoration”.)

Consulting Women

The symposium also explored changing gender roles in Syria: the feminist movement, the globalization of a Syrian women’s religious association, and the education of female Syrian refugees.

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Hayat Sankar, a Syrian lawyer based in Turkey, said language was the biggest hurdle for women to complete their education. “They find it difficult to communicate with Turkish citizens, to adapt to a new educational system,” she said.

Sankar highlighted the need for awareness about women’s education. “Many think the male member should study, but this is changing,” she said. “Some women were the only breadwinner in the family, doing their best to adopt to a new environment.”

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