My previous blog posts on refugee higher education have come alive in the form of the Jamiya Project, which aims to provide accessible and relevant higher education by reconnecting the Syrian students to Syrian academics and making use of existing infrastructure.
This article was written for the New Research Voices journal for its April edition focussed on Syrian academics in Exile. You can find the full edition here.
During a recent research trip to Gaziantep − a city in south-eastern Turkey where one in five are refugees from Syria − I sipped strong Turkish coffees with Syrian students whilst discussing the challenges they face in accessing university after being forced to flee their country. Despite these difficulties, however, not only had several of them succeeded in continuing their studies, but they had also setup a network across the whole of Turkey to support other Syrian students facing similar challenges. This remarkable display of energy and determination in adversity underlines how refugee communities are a crucial and willing part of solutions to the difficulties they face.
The reality is that many young Syrians are facing similar challenges to those I met in Gaziantep. Since the start of the Syrian revolution, hundreds of thousands of Syrian university students have had their education disrupted by civil war and continue to do so. The barriers they face are many and difficult to overcome: insufficient language skills to access Turkish or English-based courses; prohibitively high tuition fees; family commitments preventing overseas travel to access scholarships.
Prior to the civil war, 25% of Syrians went onto further training or higher education. Five years later, there are approximately 100,000 Syrians currently missing out on university − the equivalent of ten Oxford Universities worth of students.
The disruption and displacement resulting from the Syrian conflict disturbs the networks and institutions that would have previously provided university education for a whole country. Yet, if given the platform on which to build, refugees are more than capable of creating their own solutions, much like those students in Gaziantep.
The Jamiya Project aims to use technology and the capacity of existing institutions to reconnect networks of Syrian academics and students to restart higher education despite mass displacement. The Project will bring together partner universities in Europe to provide content, a cadre of Syrian academics to design and teach courses in Arabic, and local IT centres in the Middle East, along with an Arabic-based online learning platform, to connect all these partners with a rich learning environment. This allows for courses and learning methods that are designed around the specific situation of Syrian refugees, enabling education with and through their community.
This will not be the first time exiled academic communities have come together to continue their work despite the tragedy of conflict and mass displacement. The examples of German and French academics arriving at the New School in New York in the 1930s and 40s having fled World War II and Nazi occupation of Europe are fantastic inspiration. Seventy years later, we now possess the technology to not only sustain academic communities, but also to reconnect them to their student communities, to do so at scale and with rich online learning environments.
Much like the exiled academics in early 20th century, Syria’s current academic community are more than willing to be a part of the solution. Dr. Oula Abu-Amsha, one of the Syrian academics working on the Jamiya Project, left Syria in 2012: “I was fulfilling my obligations as a mother in protecting my children. But until now I feel a great bitterness about leaving my students and my colleagues behind. I keep telling myself that during a crisis the circle of influence hugely reduces, I was only able to save my own children. To overcome this feeling of culpability I tried from the beginning to give a hand to all my colleagues and students who ask for help. I supervised the work of several students until they got their master degrees.”
“Leaving my academic network in the country made me feel lost and alone, I had very few contacts outside Syria that I tried to put to work. I wanted to be involved in giving back education to Syrian youth but… things don’t work this way! Even if you feel that you have something to give, the global system that pretends to take care of my people in distress won’t let you in. I’ve met many wonderful people in the last few years. They are all willing to help, but the system doesn’t easily makes place to outsiders like me.”
“I believe there are many Syrian academics like myself who are striving to get back to their role of educators. The Jamiya project intends to build on the energy of these people to offer a relevant and decent higher education options to our students so that we don’t have this “lost generation” that the global system is deploring instead of doing its best to prevent it from getting larger and larger.”
Not only does the current situation prevent young Syrians from continuing with their lives and achieving their goals, but it also makes the future efforts to rebuild Syria after the civil war even harder.
It is imperative that international universities, Syrian academics − and other Arabic speaking academics − and the international community work together in finding solutions to the current crisis. Each has value to bring to the table. By engaging Syrian academics, we enable a community to be part of creating the solution and continue their education service by making courses accessible and relevant to the situation of students.
To get involved with the Jamiya Project as an academic, a student, a university, or just to keep in touch with progress, visit www.jamiyaproject.com or contact the team members below.
Oula Abu Amsha, Ben Webster and Paul O’Keeffe