The conflict in Syria has become the 21st century’s worst humanitarian crisis. The numbers are staggering:
- Over 300,000 killed
- close to 4.5 million refugees
- more than 9 million internally displaced peoples
Combined, that’s over half of Syria’s pre-war population.
On October 19th, IIE Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE-SRF) supporters and guests celebrated the art and work of IIE-SRF alumna Jumana Jaber at a reception at IIE’s headquarters in New York City. Dr. Jaber is a Syrian artist and professor of visual art and design whose artwork has been exhibited in Poland, the United States, and Syria, including at the Syrian Ministry of Culture and the National Museum of Damascus. Her portfolio spans architecture, interior design, and the foundations of Islamic art, including pieces that explore the relationship between ancient and contemporary architecture in Syria.
Here in Germany it is clear that they cannot take all refugees traveling their direction, or even all that have already arrived. It is also clear that Angela Merkel is in real trouble for trying, and that the Germans in the higher education space want their country to lead the way in helping.
Daniela Kaisth, Vice President for External Affairs and IIE Initiatives, and I were honored to represent the Institute at a celebration in Berlin for the 90th anniversary of the founding of the German Academic Exchange Service, or DAAD.
Our experience suggests that fragile states cannot succeed without major investments in higher education. Accordingly, neglecting academic needs during and after armed conflict raises the risk of failure once peace is restored—with security implications for the rest of the world. As noted by IIE Vice President Daniela Kaisth, “there is widespread recognition that education at all levels must be protected during war for the vital role it plays in preserving leadership, stabilizing societies, and once conflict subsides, rebuilding peaceful and prosperous communities.”
You probably have never heard of the Global Platform for Syrian Students. I hadn’t heard of them either until about two years ago when the President of Carnegie Corporation of New York, Dr. Vartan Gregorian, introduced us.
It was a real lesson in globalization. The airplane announcement went something like this:
"The local authorities have asked us to spray the cabin to prevent the spread of disease by mosquitos. Please do not breathe in if you are allergic to spraying. And due to the recent outbreaks of Ebola, MERS, H1N1, and bird flu, please report to local authorities upon landing if you have any of the following symptoms: ..." You can imagine the list.
In the middle of June, when the team at the IIE Scholar Rescue Fund realized we were facing a third Iraq emergency—as well as requests for help from scholars in many other parts of the world—Senator Leahy of Vermont reminded us why we do this work. He told the story of a man walking along a beach where many starfish had washed ashore. The man was picking them up one by one and tossing them back into the ocean. A passerby noted that there were many hundreds and that the effort was pretty much futile. “Not to the one I just managed to throw back,” replied the man.
“Thank God we’re alive, but we are dying an intellectual death.”
Wearing a colorful headscarf and a seemingly permanent look of sorrow, an intense and charismatic professor I’ll call Noora shared with me her tragic story of fleeing Syria and becoming a refugee. I was in Reyhanlı, a dusty border town in Turkey’s southernmost province, to meet with Syrians whose university education and academic work had been interrupted indefinitely due to the conflict in their homeland. Among the more than three million Syrian refugees, including an estimated one million in Turkey, there are tens of thousands of university students and professors.
Doing our best to ignore the rumbling of military tanks outside a Beirut classroom, we listened as a group of Syrian university students shared with us how they had fled their homes and studies in Syria and were struggling to continue their education in Lebanon.