The underrated casualty of war

by Connor Soudani

Imagine you are a young, ambitious college student on a promising stretch to obtaining your lifelong goal of achieving a college degree.  However, before you know it, you are surrounded by a civil war which makes it almost impossible to continue your education in your native homeland.  You consider trying to continue your studies abroad, but with your relatives getting killed on the streets, you feel compelled to stay and offer your support.  In the vast chaos that ensues, you find yourself wanting to continue your education and trying to stay alive.
This scenario isn’t happening in Spokane, but it is happening in Syria.  However, it is the details of Syrian student life that are far more revealing of their current state of affairs.

A former Syrian student whose identity she chose not to reveal, left Syria before the revolution on a scholarship from the Syrian government to study in Malaysia.  However, she says that the conflict has caused many new problems for her and her fellow students abroad.

“Now me and most Syrian students have a financial problems,” she said.  “We cannot pay our fees because most of times we do not receive our money and we cannot ask our families to help us and we cannot find a job.”

She continues, saying that while she left before the revolution began, if she still resided in Syria, her actions would have been different.

“If I were in Syria I will not leave under any circumstances because I have to defend on my country.  I should not leave it to those animals,” she said.

Additionally, Andrea Hobright, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, has been going to Aleppo for the past 15-20 years and says she knows about those circumstances for students.

“There are no classes because the war is so bad,” Hobright said. “Most of the professors are in hiding or have left the country.”

Jordan Michelson, a Whitworth alum, spent a year in Syria with the Mennonite church teaching English to young children.  He said that the situation is just as bad for students trying to find education abroad.
“Syrians historically have had a difficult time traveling, and it’s hard to get a passport,” Michelson said.  “All in all, some people just can’t leave.”

According to Munzer Absi, dean of the faculty of languages & humanities at Ebla Private University, the actualities of academic strife for Syrian students is all too real.

“The worst part is that a whole generation will be a year behind,” Absi said.  “Some of these students may not be able to ever go back to school since they might start looking for ways to support their families.”

Even for those who aren’t students, life once outside the border trades one evil for another.

“There are over 300,000 registered refugees in Jordan and Turkey,” Michelson said.  “The truth is that thousands don’t register out of a perceived fear that the Syrian secret police will hunt them down.”

For those who stay, it becomes very difficult to conduct one’s normal life when one doesn’t declare their allegiance to the government.

“First of all, we wouldn’t be having this conversation in public,” Michelson said.  “The government just wouldn’t allow for political dissent.”

According to an Al Jazeera article written in April 2011, university students were being strongly encouraged to join the ruling Baath party because of the free education given by the Syrian government to accepted members of universities.  Higher education students were bribed with the opportunities of grade increases and a crucial boost for many hoping to enter the best faculties.

Students who chose not to side with the ruling party were persecuted by police and their fellow students.

“We had to say always yes or we will lose our life.  I hate them too much. They prevent us to develop our country,” the former Syrian student said.

“It’s a tribal mentality out there right now,” says Hobright.  “People don’t really know who is fighting Al-Assad, all they know is that they’re in hell.”

Even for those just beginning their education, life is perhaps even more of a struggle.  In reference to a 2011 report by UNESCO, armed conflict is robbing 28 million children of an education by exposing them to widespread sexual violence, targeted attacks on schools and other abuses.

“These kids have beautiful dreams,” Michelson said, “but those dreams have been altered.”

However, Absi believes that this idea has a much broader implication.

“I think education is one of the most lamentable casualties of the current crisis,” Absi said.

As the former Syrian student reflects on the conflict, her plans for the future portray her feelings of responsibility.

“[I hope] to come back Syria soon, to contribute in building it, to help people who suffer from the atrocities, to help children, and to develop the academic field because I have now a good experience I will finish PHD soon in a couple of month.  I make a very good effort in my studying to benefit my country,” she said.

For now, the Syrian conflict with an unforeseeable end threatens the educational opportunities of students in and outside of Syria for generations to come.

Contact Connor Soudani at csoudani16@my.whitworth.edu

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