After the bombs

Woman walking away from danger

Credit: Robert Neubecker

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, in March 2011, about 4 million Syrian citizens have fled to neighboring countries, including Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, as registered by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. More than 428,000 Syrians have also sought asylum in Europe, a number that has been skyrocketing in the last few months, as the conditions in Syria and neighboring countries have further deteriorated. But it is only recently that the human tragedy behind the numbers became a vivid reality to the world, with photos of the ordeals that these refugees are facing as they try to reach European countries now inundating the international media.

Science Careers spoke to a Syrian computer scientist who was able to make her way to Europe before it became overwhelmed with the flood of refugees. In her interview, she described her professional life in Syria, the escalating conflict, and her efforts to ensure a future for herself and her family in a new country. Today, 3 years after leaving the war behind her, she feels that her life may be coming back together. With her immediate family safe, she is now directing her efforts toward rebuilding her career and finding ways to help Syrian student refugees regain access to education. She requested that her identity be kept undisclosed for security reasons.

Syrian professors “need opportunities to rebuild their personal and professional lives, as I am trying to do now.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What was your career like in Syria before the conflict?

A: My career was evolving slowly because of the way the academic system was in Syria. It’s not that the system was discriminatory against women; it’s just that it was not helpful for most people. For example, we had restrictions on our ability to travel and communicate with the outside world, so it was not easy for me to participate in conferences or collaborate with researchers in other countries. And, like in most parts of the developing world, there was favoritism regarding access to resources, based on sectarian or political reasons. In our case, we were supposed to do research, but we didn’t have the means to do so. There also were a lot of administrative burdens, and to achieve something in these conditions you have to put in a lot of extra effort, which usually means giving more to your work than to your family. Rather than struggling to only get small returns at work, I chose to take care of my family while still doing my best for my students.

Still, with perseverance, I was able to fulfill part of a dream. As a professor, I was not satisfied with the way Syrian students were being taught, and so I was trying to put in place a program to improve the quality of teaching at my university. But, in March 2011, just as the program was taking shape, the conflict started and everything else was stopped.

Q: How have you seen the conflict evolve?

A: At the beginning, my colleagues and I were freely discussing the pro-democracy protests and government response among us. Back then, we could not possibly imagine that the conflict would last for more than 6 months. However, within a few months, we started to see people getting arrested and tortured—including students on campus—for participating in protests or speaking out on social media. Stories of violence against women in prisons and, as the violence between the government and opponents escalated, in conflict zones increasingly horrified me, eventually driving me into depression. So, by fall 2011, I had resolved to stop discussing any of my opinions openly, primarily to protect my children.

Still, as the civil war took hold of the country, not risking your life quickly became impossible. The year I left, just before the students’ final exams, there was a big explosion near my office. I wasn’t at work at the time; had I been there, I would have been killed. The next day, when I came to give my lectures, I had very few students. And while they were there, sitting in front of me, mentally they were absent. I could see in their eyes just how lost they felt. It suddenly seemed meaningless to teach in such a situation, and I became convinced that we had to keep those young people at home. “There is no need for them to go to university and get killed,” I would tell my colleagues and friends.

But, with time, I and people in Syria realized that they are not safe at home nor anywhere else, and you can’t just keep waiting for years. You have to do something. So many universities there are still open, and students have kept going with only one dream: having at least an undergraduate degree in hand when, finally, they are able to leave the country. Meanwhile, the professors who stayed in Syria have also continued to go to work, teach the students, and give exams, in spite of the dire circumstances.

Q: How did you leave Syria?

A: Back in 2012, it was still relatively easy, as the numbers of refugees sharply increased only later. My husband, children, and I first traveled to a neighboring country. It helped that I was a woman and that I was married, because, by law, my university had to give me a leave of absence so I could follow my husband. My husband used to have a small business of his own in Syria, and he moved his business activities to our new country. Once we overcame the initial difficulties of the move, his business was going rather well. I also managed to have a few part-time assignments in different domains vaguely related to my experience, and I kept working with the master’s students I was supervising back in Syria. I feel relieved that several of them were able to finish their projects.

But, all along, we knew that we couldn’t stay in that first country forever, because we didn’t feel safe there in the long run. To help my family get to a more secure country, I tried—to no avail—to apply for any open university position I could find in the Gulf states. But I soon realized that it would be impossible for me to secure such a position, because I had too few research publications on my CV. Then, one day on Facebook, I discovered a U.S. funding program for hosting threatened scholars in safe academic institutions around the world called the Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF), from the Institute of International Education (IIE) in New York City. Coming from a culture traditionally suspicious of the United States, I had a long period of hesitation. But with nothing else in hand, I applied and got one of IIE-SRF’s fellowships.

At that point, my husband, who meanwhile had been trying to secure a job in Europe, had also made good progress. With a lot of help with the paperwork from a potential business partner that he knew there, my husband eventually obtained a work visa to go and live in Europe. The rest of the family was then able to apply for a family reunion in the regular way, and we all moved to our new country.

I still needed to find a suitable visiting position to take up my fellowship. IIE-SRF referred me to the Scholars at Risk (SAR) Network, which is also based in New York City but has a broad network in Europe. Even with IIE-SRF and SAR’s support, many local administrative and financial issues made it very difficult for me to secure a visiting position. But, eventually, after 10 months of searching and contacting people and institutions, I succeeded. By then, two whole years of attempts to secure a future for our family, with long periods of waiting in uncertainty and sometimes desperation, had passed since we left Syria.

Q: What are your immediate aspirations?

A: My fellowship was initially for 1 year, and it has just ended. It is extensible for another year, and I am planning to move to a new institution to expand my professional network, with the hope of securing a stable job in the end.

I am very grateful to both SAR and IIE-SRF. During this first year in a completely new country, their help has been invaluable. Now that I know people and the system here, and that I have had the opportunity to demonstrate what I can offer to a host institution, it was much easier to find a new place. My second-year hosting arrangements promise to be far simpler than they were during my first year.

Meanwhile, I have also been trying to explore a new professional avenue, looking for opportunities in refugee education. Again, IIE-SRF has been supporting me in this endeavor. As I left Syria and first tried to rebuild my life elsewhere, I only felt I was in a position to take care of my immediate family. But, with time, I have come to feel that my children are safe and evolving well in their new environment. So now, increasingly, I feel that I have to do something for the wider circle of people that I used to take care of: the Syrian students. With the armed conflict, many young people have had to leave Syria and stop their education. So far, gaining access to universities in their host countries has been very difficult for Syrian students, because of money issues, language barriers, and laws that don’t allow them to enroll in local universities or leave the refugee camps if they live there. But we can imagine a lot of possible solutions, including offering student refugees scholarships, free online courses, training and vocational programs within camps, and funding or even positions for Syrian professors in exile to teach them.

With time, I think that I will be able to develop something meaningful in this direction. I need to feel that I am making a contribution, however small, to help Syrian students. And maybe then I will be … not happy—it is impossible for us Syrians to feel any sense of happiness as we continue to hear about all the tragic events that afflict our people—but somewhat relieved.

Q: How can the international scientific community help Syrian scholars?

A: Scientists who are still in Syria may not be in a position to get in touch with people abroad. But for people who have left for Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey, for example, it would be very helpful to feel that the international academic community is with them. So far, this hasn’t been the case. When I was trying to contact universities in the neighboring country we first fled to, and also in countries around the Gulf, sending my CV and explaining that I was a Syrian professor, I never got any answers. It gives you the feeling that you are alone in the world. Feeling supported, on the other hand, can greatly help you overcome difficulties.

I also believe that individual scientists in host institutions can do a lot for Syrian scholars. The professor I have been working with in my first visiting position, in particular, has been great. He has never openly discussed any aspects of my personal situation with me, but with time he has proved really eager to support me. He has never told me, “You are Syrian; you need the support.” Rather, he’s been saying, “You need to learn about this and that to be able to find a decent job.” As I am still sorting out my options, I am currently employed at his university in a part-time position that he fought hard to get me, in spite of all the complicated internal rules.

Overall, I believe that raising awareness that Syrian professors can bring interesting backgrounds and great value to their host countries and institutions would be very helpful. They need opportunities to rebuild their personal and professional lives, as I am trying to do now. And finally, academic administrators and political decision-makers should realize that time is an issue when you are in distress. Even though I eventually managed to regain access to a university, I still remember the long wait and the feelings of uncertainty and abandonment from the rest of the world. Scholars like me need support, and they need it urgently.

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