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International Support Mobilizes for Syrian Academics Caught in Civil War

September 25, 2012

The worsening civil strife in Syria is taking a heavy toll on academics, prompting a scramble by international organizations to help.

The Institute of International Education announced on Tuesday at the Clinton Global Initiative here that it would lead an effort to provide emergency support to Syrian scholars and students. It is working with Jusoor, a group created in response to the Syria crisis, and the Illinois Institute of Technology.

The three organizations have committed $2-million to the project and are urgently seeking involvement by others to expand the program, which has already provided havens for several Syrian students and academics. The State Department’s EducationUSA network will help publicize the effort to ensure that Syrian students are aware of their opportunities.

With universities across Syria either closed or facing severe disruptions, the need for assistance is dire. Many students have already lost more than a year of study, and both professors and students have faced arrest, harassment, and imprisonment, often because of their university affiliation. According to Jim Miller, executive director of IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund, which helps endangered academics around the world, the fund has received three times as many applications from Syrians this year as in the organization’s first decade in existence, from 2002 to 2011.

An associate professor at the University of Aleppo, who requested anonymity because her family remains in Syria, fled this year and is now based at an institution in California through the Scholar Rescue Fund. She said that education at all levels in Syria was in disarray and that universities were especially vulnerable. Student activists provided the initial spark of the uprising and have persisted in their activism, despite brutal reprisals by security forces, she said.

In May, emboldened by the presence in Syria of United Nations observers, students in Aleppo mounted large protests. At least four students were killed, and military officials soon shut down the university. The university’s dormitories now house some 25,000 refugees, she said, and three weeks ago the institution’s newly installed president also fled.

3 Professors Assassinated

Many academics have been cowed into silence. Those who do speak out—as the Aleppo professor did, urging wider support among colleagues for the uprising and more open criticism of the regime’s brutal tactics—are targets for reprisal. One colleague recently fled to Saudi Arabia after spending four months in jail, she said, and at least three professors in Aleppo have been assassinated. Most of the six members of her department have fled the country.

In Homs, Syria, the western city that was a flash point for the uprising’s initial phase, the university was closed for the entire academic year last year and campus buildings are being used as prisons.

The Scholar Rescue Fund has awarded fellowships of $20,000 to $25,000 to eight Syrian scholars this year, and several more applications are pending. So far, 10 universities in the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, and France have agreed to host Scholar Rescue Fund fellows from Syria. Even limited involvement by institutions, such as sponsoring a single student or hosting one scholar, could do much to alleviate the need, said Daniela Z. Kaisth, IIE’s vice president for strategic development.

Megan E. Mozina, assistant director of international outreach and engagement at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said her institution became involved in late June. With support from Jusoor, the university rushed to put in place a program for the current academic year, committing to covering up to half of a full year of costs for as many as 50 undergraduates. The Illinois institute heard from 450 Syrian undergraduates, of whom 130 were invited to apply based on their credentials. Of those, 28 were admitted for the fall term.

Jusoor has committed to covering the remaining $25,000 in annual cost for those students but has been able to come up with only enough money to support 14 students, so the rest have remained either in Syria or in neighboring countries, where they had fled the violence. Ms. Mozina said that the university hoped to be able to raise enough money to bring those students to the campus by next spring.