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An Academic in Exile Torn Between Here and There

While struggling to restart her career in Europe, Syrian academic Oula Abu-Amsha found solace helping refugees in Jordan access higher education through the Jamiya Project and was reunited with her former students from Damascus University.

Written by Oula Abu-Amsha Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Mideast jordan syria1
A refugee student carries his books after finishing the school day at Zaatari Syrian refugee camp, in Mafraq, Jordan in 2012.AP/Mohammad Hannon

Last September, I was thrilled and anxious at the same time. I was returning to the classroom after a four-year interruption to my teaching career.

I missed my students whom I had left behind in Damascus, and was curious to see whether I would get the same sense of satisfaction from teaching my new European students and contributing to their academic journey.

I suspected that my new students would not have the same needs as the Syrians I taught at Damascus University, nor communicate in the same way. I was not sure that I would be fit for this challenge. At the same time, I knew that I needed to make a place for myself in the European country where I currently live.

I had been trying to make a new life and restart my career for four years since leaving Syria in 2012. Even though I have higher degrees from a European university and speak three languages, without an extensive portfolio of research publications (it is hard to conduct quality research in Syria) and an adequate professional network, I had very little chance of getting an academic position. So I put myself forward for modestly paid temporary positions. I was eager to prove, at least to myself, that I could restart my career after the age of 40. I guess this was my headlong run to forget the life I left behind in Damascus.

Yet it is not restarting my career in Europe that has thrilled me the most these past few months.

During the same period, the Jamiya Project launched our first online and in-person blended learning course for Syrian refugee students in Amman and Jordan’s Zaatari camp in September. I had spent months preparing for it, from working on the course content to selecting the students and coordinating the delivery. My heart was beating as I followed the launch from a distance.

As the course coordinator, I was in touch with the students via email and WhatsApp. I will never forget the email response I received from one prospective student. “Doctor! I am a former student of yours. I took courses with you back in 2012.” We both fled after that final year at Damascus University, and now we are virtually together again. This young man was supposed to finish his engineering degree last year, but the Syrian war decided otherwise.

Neither will I forget my first Skype call with the tutor supporting our students in the Zaatari camp. I heard him telling the learning center coordinator sitting by his side: “But I know her! I know this professor!” He was also a final-year student whom I had taught in Damascus.

I am with my students again, but only virtually. It was a confusing feeling – I was happy to connect with them again, and yet deeply sad that they ended up in a refugee camp when they were supposed to be young engineers planning for rich careers.

Both my new courses put me under pressure, but for quite different reasons.

I deeply enjoyed my virtual interactions with the students in the Jamiya Project course. Their questions and requests renewed my energy and gave me new meaning. There were many obstacles during the course, but I felt those students were depending on us, and that I had much to give back to them.

As weeks passed, my team at Jamiya, who are dispersed around the globe, struggled to offer the students the best learning experience we could. We eventually realized that they lack many of the skills that would allow them to be autonomous learners, and that they would need learning-skills training before enrolling in university-level courses. Despite these difficulties, nearly 70 percent of the students continued with us until the end. This is quite an achievement compared to most online courses. I believe this is in part due to our shared hope of seeing them achieve success and progress.

My European students challenged me in a completely different way. I was teaching a database course to engineering bachelor students, something I’ve never taught before. In contrast to my Syrian refugee students, these students were clearly very comfortable with technology. Many of them owned computers that I cannot afford myself. Many had already studied or worked with databases. I struggled with the large group of students because I didn’t have a fully confident attitude.

They were very demanding. My attempts to interact with them using the same methods I used with my students in Syria did not always work. Obviously, many of these students didn’t need the emotional support that my refugee students needed.

Now that both courses have come to end, I still have the same feeling of insecurity. I am not sure I will be able to get another job in the country where I live. I am also aware that designing relevant solutions for refugee students requires great effort and resources. What I am sure about is that the students who need me most are over there in the camps and not here next to me.

In the first few months after I left Syria, there was a spot on the TV news showing a young boy looking behind him at a destroyed school building, and sighing: “I have now lost everything.” I used to cry each time I saw it; even now, years later, I feel tears in my eyes.

Education used to be, and still is, a serious matter in Syria. Although we didn’t have a top-quality education system, education shaped and influenced society. Syrians put high expectations on their children and made laborious plans to secure the best education opportunities they could afford.

Now, hundred of thousands of young people have seen their dreams of university vanish. Thousands of academics have also fled the country and found themselves disconnected from their professional networks, helpless and sometimes hopeless. There should be a way to help all these people who are supposed to rebuild a “new Syria.” My deepest hope is that I, and my team at Jamiya, will make a meaningful contribution.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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