Kassem Alsayed Mahmoud studies the chemistry of chocolate at Ghent University. But chocolate was not his intended research focus, nor did he plan to spend his academic career in Belgium. After completing his Ph.D. in food processing and biotechnology in France studying fatty acids in fish eggs, Alsayed Mahmoud returned home to his native Syria in 2009 to be an assistant professor in food sciences at Al-Furat University in Deir ez-Zor.
But with the onset of civil war in 2011, the Syrian higher education system began to decline. Today, Alsayed Mahmoud says, “three of the five [main] universities in Syria are out of service. Everyone tries to say everything is okay. This is not education, with no materials, no staff.” He left Syria for Turkey in 2012 and eventually made his way to Belgium last year.
Students and professors who have stayed in Syria take part in a much-diminished educational system while facing the dangers of living in a country in conflict.
A decade ago, according to a report from the Syrian Ministry of Higher Education in 2004, four public universities had a total of 191,463 students enrolled in engineering, medicine, agriculture, and other studies, such as Arabic literature and education, with a combined teaching staff of 4,740. Planned enrollment for new private universities was expected to add more than 10,000 students.
Today, five large public universities in Syria—Damascus, Aleppo, Tishreen, Al-Baath, and Al-Furat, which was founded in 2006—and some of their branch campuses and smaller private universities seem to still be functioning, at least online. That’s according to official Syrian news sources and press releases from the Ministry of Higher Education. But all the universities are most likely diminished in their capacity, according to Alsayed Mahmoud and others contacted for this story. Some universities no longer function and reportedly have tried to transfer their students to schools with supposedly safer campuses.
“It’s very hard to know on a day-to-day basis what is happening,” says James R. King of the Institute of International Education in New York City. “Exams are being conducted; students are being taught. No doubt there are students and faculty working very hard and who are at times in great danger for continuing their work.” He continues, “For example, we hear from agricultural faculty about all the difficulties of doing research—perhaps their fieldwork was in eastern Syria,” which is now too dangerous to visit.
Tens of thousands of other students and faculty members have been forced to flee.
The location of a university is a strong determinant of how well—or whether—it is operating. “Some areas in Syria have been relatively secure, such as central Damascus. It’s not as if all of Syria is an active war zone,” King says.
Faculty and students have been hampered in getting to campuses. Travel that once took an hour now takes five to six hours, and commuting students and faculty sometimes must cross checkpoints held by different groups, including Syrian military forces and armed opposition, which raises risks, King says. He adds that campus dorms, which would have been safe spaces for students to live in while avoiding dangerous commutes, have become housing for some of 8 million internally displaced Syrians.
Life in Syria is challenging for students and teachers alike. Electricity is unreliable and access to the World Wide Web is difficult, as is getting data and journal articles, according to a 25-year-old graduate student at Damascus University who asked that she and her field of study not be named for fear of her safety. She is torn about staying in Syria. “I have no Internet or electricity to take any online courses. I think I lose my time. But it’s so difficult to leave things here and not know if I can come home.”
Syrian students in the chemical sciences face dim outlooks once they graduate. The agricultural, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries across Syria have slowed. Students in pharmacy, for example, will most likely have few prospects after they graduate because so many jobs in this sector have been cut, says an academic who asked to be unnamed for his safety. He says research at universities and by the government is minimal and overall class enrollment has shrunk.
He and others say that course lectures and exams continue, but sporadically. “Professors might reschedule an exam two or three times to accommodate all the students,” King says. Lectures might take place in hotel conference rooms.
Bartholomeus Vrolijk, the chief of UNICEF’s education program in Syria, says that in meetings with the Syrian government in late January, a deputy minister of education reported 600,000 young people ages 18–25 are currently enrolled in eight public and 20 private institutions as well as 60 technical and trade schools run by universities or by the education ministry, down from over 700,000 in public universities alone two years ago.
The number of students and professors in Syria has decreased in part, according to several sources, because men have been conscripted or leave the country to avoid serving in the army or possibly being killed in the war. Anecdotally, women make up the entire student body of some university departments, according to Radwan Ziadeh, executive director of the Syrian Center for Political & Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C.
“I am in contact with my friends now, who are trying to find any way to get out. The situation is so difficult,” says Alsayed Mahmoud, the chocolate chemist in Belgium. His colleagues in Syria, he says, “cannot find materials, apparatuses, because of the economic situation and, of course, the fighting in the region.”
Despite his position as an assistant professor, Alsayed Mahmoud, now 42, had to serve in the Syrian military starting at age 37. Syrian men can be conscripted until middle age, and dispensation for academics is no longer the norm for either students or professors.
Alsayed Mahmoud says he returned from military duty on holidays to teach his master’s students and conduct his research. When his service was supposed to end in December 2011, he was not released. Instead he was detailed to run a farm for the military, indefinitely, and eventually required to fight.
“You have to participate, to kill civilians and others. They don’t care if you are anything—a professor, a Ph.D. I refused and told them this is not my job,” Alsayed Mahmoud says.
He left the country as soon as he could. And because of his military desertion—which is punishable by death in Syria—he may never be able to return.
Naomi Lubick is a freelance reporter in Stockholm.