After militants burned down his house outside Damascus in late 2013, Moustafa* faced a bitter choice: “Either join the fight or have your silence taken to mean support for the other side,” he says. The intellectual property law researcher at the University of Damascus found neither option palatable, so he fled Syria.
The 5-year-old Syrian civil war has displaced 4.8 million people, including some 2000 scholars like Moustafa. He and several other exiled researchers gathered to tell their stories and highlight the urgent need for support at a symposium in New York City on 29 April put on by the nonprofit Institute of International Education (IIE). According to IIE, fewer than 10% of the displaced scholars have resumed their academic careers. Most are still refugees in neighboring countries, where they encounter resentment and bureaucratic obstacles to finding jobs. Moustafa is one of the lucky ones: In August 2015, he landed a position at Rutgers University, Newark, in New Jersey.
“We need to help rescue scholars when there is a crisis or war, because these professionals will bear the burden of rebuilding their country,” says IIE President Allan Goodman in New York City. IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF) has provided fellowships of up to $25,000 to more than 130 Syrian scholars since 2011. Western organizations must step up their efforts, he says, to connect scholars with several dozen European and North American universities that have pledged to host at least one uprooted academic.
Host universities benefit, says Amal Alachkar, a neuroscientist who escaped from the University of Aleppo in 2012. Thanks to an SRF fellowship, she landed a position at the University of California, Irvine, where she studies schizophrenia and the psychological toll of war. “Syria is losing its experts,” she says. “Rescuing scholars is like adopting orphan minds.”
Unlike in previous conflicts, academics in Syria were targeted from the beginning because they are vocal opponents of repression, Goodman says. As a result, schools and universities were hit hard in the conflict’s early months. Syrian government airstrikes in January 2013 destroyed the architecture department at the University of Aleppo. Less than a year later, opposition fighters captured Aleppo, and then Islamic State group insurgents infiltrated the city. Faculty and students were cut off from other cities and resources, says one scholar formerly at the University of Aleppo who asked to remain anonymous. Just getting to the university became an ordeal, she says. She and others had to pass a gauntlet of checkpoints manned by the government and the IS group to travel from eastern Aleppo to the city’s western end, where the university was located. Eventually, she says, “we couldn’t do anything. We had no roads, no water, and no electricity or internet to communicate.” With help from the SRF, she moved to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg in August 2014.
Scholars trapped in territory controlled by the IS group could only continue working at universities if they adhered to Sharia law, or strict Islamic principles. Another SRF scholar from Syria who wished to remain anonymous says that the militants used coercion and intimidation to ensure that university classes conformed to their requirements. Supervisors appointed by IS group had authority to approve courses and experiments. Militants also replaced science and math courses—which they considered against the teachings of Islam or simply not useful—with courses on Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and on the Quran.
“It is an indoctrination of their version of Islam,” Moustafa says. “The terrorists kill Muslims who disagree with them first. Then they indoctrinate everyone else.”