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Syrian Academics in Exile Try to Help Their Homeland

A symposium recently heard how Syrian academics, many of them in exile, struggle to continue their work and use research to empower students and local communities in Syria. Panels included sessions on the difficulties of conducting interdisciplinary research among scholars working across borders and cultural gaps.

The conference also heard from researchers who are providing the latest technological information to Syrian farmers, and from academics working to provide higher education in regions of Syria still torn by 11 years of war.

Cara, the Council for At-Risk Academics, organized the five-day online conference, called “Voices from the Syrian Academic Community”, with support from the British Academy and the Royal Society.

The academics discussed studies of agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and food security in line with United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals(See a related article, “Scholars Fleeing War-Torn Middle East Find Safety in U.K. Universities”.)

They also reviewed work supported by Cara’s Syria Programme, which was launched in 2016 to support academics affected by the Syrian crisis. (See a related article, “Symposium Highlights Role of Syrian Academics in Post-Conflict Recovery.”)

Problems of Interdisciplinary Research

Despite the conference’s focus on finding local solutions, Cara also helped Syrian academics in exile to conduct interdisciplinary research in partnership with international mentors and experts, said Tom Parkinson, a senior lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Kent. It also helped them access resources in other higher education institutions.

“Interdisciplinary research and multi-author collaborative writing are becoming increasingly common … to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline.”

Nidal Alajaj
A former lecturer at the University of Aleppo’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities

Nidal Alajaj, a former lecturer at the University of Aleppo’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities, said: “Interdisciplinary research and multi-author collaborative writing are becoming increasingly common … to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline.”

Alajaj, who is currently doing a Ph.D. at the University of Kent, said this approach had helped Syrian academics now based in Turkey to get their research published in journals.

However, Baraa Khuder, a Syrian postdoctoral researcher at Chalmers University of Technology, in Sweden, said there were tensions between scholars based in the United Kingdom and the Syrians in exile due to cultural and linguistic differences.

“Syrian scholars tend to unhappily accept the suggestions made by their foreign peers,” she said. “Sometimes, there will be clashes over whose language is going to be used.”

Some papers failed at the publishing point, Khuder said, when the authors were unable to reach a solution.

To avoid such clashes, Khudur suggested “every team member should set clear goals and share their knowledge and expertise at the beginning so they will all know what they will get from this collaboration.”

Podcasts Keep Syrian Farmers Up to Date

Another group of scholars discussed “Agricultural Voices Syria”, a 15-episode podcast series they produced to connect 1,200 displaced farmers in northwestern Syria with experts on sustainable agricultural practices and techniques.

Martin Spinelli, a professor of podcasting and creative media at the University of Sussex, said: “Our colleagues on the ground promote the app among farmers and show them how to use it.”

Syrian academics in exile
Shaher Abdullateef, Mirela Barbu and Martin Spinelli discussed their work on a podcast series that connects displaced farmers in northwestern Syria with experts on sustainable agriculture.

Mirela Barbu, a senior lecturer in logistics and supply chain management at the University of Sussex’s Business School, explained that the initiative aimed at meeting the second U.N. sustainable development goal, “Zero Hunger”.

“All the activities were designed to engage Syrian farmers and share the results,” Barbu said.

Before the war, Syria’s agricultural centres used to give farmers the latest research and get their feedback, said Shaher Abdullateef, an independent researcher and  member of the Cara Syria Programme.

Abdullateef, who has a Ph.D. in hydroponics and biotechnology from Humboldt University, Berlin, said the podcasts gave farmers access to knowledge, technologies, and agricultural practices to improve their lives in an era of climate change.

“It will have a long-term impact on farmers,” he said. “This pilot project can be copied to help refugees in other conflict zones.”

Education Challenges in Northwest Syria

In one of the symposium’s closing sessions, university leaders and academics discussed the realities and challenges facing higher education in northwest Syria.

“Our objective was to maintain human resources in liberated areas and provide the local community with capacities needed to reconstruct what had been destroyed in the war.”

Abdulaziz Al-Daghim
A Syrian economist and president of the Free Aleppo University

One of the speakers was, Imad Bark, president of the Higher Education Council of the Syrian Interim Government, an opposition government formed in 2013 that is now based in Turkey. Since 2015, the council has established several institutions in areas controlled by opposition forces as alternatives to universities affiliated with the central government in Damascus. (See a related article, “Universities in Syria’s Opposition-Held Areas Face an Uncertain Future”.)

The council’s vision, Bark said, is to create a “comprehensive educational system that builds a conscious generation that can rebuild its country, improve academic research, and provide equal access to higher education in northwestern Syria for local residents and internally displaced people alike.” It also makes sure to engage women in decision making, he added.

Bark, who used to teach sociology at Al-Baath University, in Homs, and Tishreen University, in Latakia, is now a member of the teaching staff at Free Aleppo University, one of the new institutions affiliated with the interim government.

Bark said there were 14,700 students in the private and public universities affiliated with his council, but only 225 teaching staff members.

Abdulaziz Al-Daghim, a Syrian economist and president of the Free Aleppo University, said that his university was playing a major role persuading students in non-regime areas not to emigrate. “Our objective was to maintain human resources in liberated areas and provide the local community with capacities needed to reconstruct what had been destroyed in the war,” he said.

Despite its limited resources, the Free Aleppo University has made it possible for students to study medicine, pharmacy, public health, engineering, electronics, biology, law, humanities and other subjects, Al-Daghim said.

“We have a lot of dropouts in elementary education, which leads to lower higher education enrollment.”

Ibrahim Mahmoud
A former lecturer at the University of Aleppo

“Some academics living in Turkey started to come back,” he added. “We have 75 teaching members now, including eight professors and 15 assistant professors. “We have celebrated the graduation of our  fourth batch of students, including 600 students and 17 medical graduates.”

Knowledge Gap and Isolated Academics

Research has found that 65 percentof Syrian students have significant knowledge gaps   because of displacement, disrupted schooling, trauma, and the need to work.

“We have a lot of dropouts in elementary education, which leads to lower higher education enrollment,” said Ibrahim Mahmoud, a former lecturer at the University of Aleppo. “Scientific departments lack labs,” said Mahmoud, who has been working with Shafak, a nongovernmental provider of humanitarian services to displaced populations. “I am giving theoretical lectures only. We have no equipment to conduct experiments. This affects the quality of education.”

Fateh Shaban, a Syrian academic who holds a Ph.D. in human geography, said another problem was that higher education in Syria was fragmented among too many supervising bodies. Institutions may be affiliated with the Syrian Interim Government, the Salvation Government, which is allied with the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham militia, or to Turkish authorities, or have no affiliation at all, Shaban said.

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“For many, accreditation and recognition is the most needed thing right now,” said Shaban.

Shaban also spoke about the lack of travel documents and visas given to Syrian academics. “Our academics feel isolated, unable to publish or pursue careers abroad. Frequent displacement left people destitute, and unable to integrate into new communities.”

The conference ran from December 6 to 10.

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