By Anonymous Academic for The Guardian
I was born and raised in Syria. I did my bachelor’s degree at the University of Damascus and was pursuing my master’s and dreaming of an academic career when the uprising started.
Everyone thought it was going to be over in a matter of days, or weeks. The pace of life slowed down massively, and many things were put on hold. We waited, but unfortunately it the chaos grew. Days turned into months and years, and the life of every single citizen has been affected in one way or another.
Academics have been targets for misfortune throughout the country. This is either because the values of enlightenment and freedom they represent are perceived as a threat, or because they are considered valuable when being traded for ransom.
Some scholars have been forced out of their offices or laboratories to join a fight that was never theirs. A great number of Syrian academics have been killed, tortured, abducted or forced to leave the country to save their lives and their families. My supervising professor had to flee the country without prior notice after her husband, also a respected professor at the same university, was abducted. She feared she would be next.
Funding has disappeared and there’s a lack of research facilities and equipment. And then there’s the more fundamental scarcity of basic resources such as electricity, fuel and water. Some universities have had to move to temporary buildings that are not suited for teaching, let alone hosting research facilities.
Achieving academic excellence was always my ambition, but once the war started it also felt like an obligation. I wanted to learn the skills that I could later use to help rebuild my country.
As the war went on, with no foreseeable ending, I knew that those dreams were on the verge of being lost. I thought I would have to enlist in the military and all I felt was despair: instead of rebuilding my country I was faced with the possibility of killing or being killed for a vain cause that was nothing to do with me.
Then I heard about Cara, the Council for At-Risk Academics. They are a community that helps academics in conflict zones find a temporary sanctuary where they can continue their academic work and arm themselves with the knowledge and experience they need to play an effective role in their countries once the risk is over. When I first approached Cara I thought that it wouldn’t be able to help me on short notice, and I imagined it would have strict criteria that I would not fulfil. The idea of starting a funded PhD degree at a university in the UK, where I knew higher education was outstanding, was only a far-fetched dream.
Cara saved my dreams from dying. Its understanding and compassion gave me hope again. It was such a relief to learn that, in the midst of all the chaos, there were organisations that recognised the importance of empowering academics in countries devastated by war.
The team were determined to help me find an academic placement that suited me. They tried tirelessly to match my research interests with possible programmes and connect me with potential supervisors until they managed to secure a placefor me at the University of Kent where I am now doing a PhD.
Healing my country
I’m eternally grateful for this opportunity. And I have resolved once again to become the academic I aspired to be, who will eventually help in resurrecting and healing my broken country. Meanwhile, despite the ravaging war, young Syrian academics back home are still working to achieve their aims.
I urge UK universities and educational institutions to take in and adopt more Syrian academics. Once they conclude their studies, they want to go back to their home universities with experience of how the higher education system in the UK operates, so they can help construct a similarly profound system back in Syria. When the war is over, this higher education system will unleash to humanity the buried creativity and brilliance of the country.
Premises and facilities are replaceable. What is irreplaceable are the minds that occupy those premises and operate those facilities.