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In Rebel-Held Areas, High School Graduates Are Being Left Behind

Students from Syria’s rebel-held areas are in limbo in their quest for higher education. The majority, fearing arrest and perilous commutes to campuses in neighboring cities, refuse to enter state-sponsored universities.

Written by Mohammed al-Khatieb / Aleppo Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Promises of accessible universities in rebel-held “liberated areas” have, thus far, fallen flat. The cost of attending school abroad is prohibitive for most families.

Sami, 22, is from Aleppo. He is dismal about his academic prospects. After completing his first two years of civil engineering studies at Damascus University, he abandoned his studies, fearing what awaited on the road between home and school. “The possibility of being detained by the Syrian intelligence is what stopped me from attending my university,” he says. Sami fears that being a young man from a rebel-held area is enough to throw him under a cloud of suspicion.

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There are no functioning universities in opposition-held northern Syria, where Sami lives. Along with the risk of detention that comes with crossing battlefronts is the ever-present physical threat posed by both ground fighting and air strikes.

Sami’s last trip from Aleppo to the capital nearly killed him. His bus was trapped in a battle zone for several hours as clashes raged between rebel and government forces. The passengers survived, but he is not willing to take the risk again.

In pre-war Syria, it was common for students to commute long distances to and from university, or to return home to the country for the weekends. Sami says that is a thing of the past. “My friends who are still attending university are forced to leave their homes for several months, simply because [it’s too dangerous to] travel to and from Damascus” every week.

Costly Tuition Abroad, No Options at Home

Despite the war, most Syrian universities are located in government-held areas and have been able to keep holding classes in relative safety. But they have seen a sharp drop in the number of attendees. Students who live near the campus or in the dorms form the bulk of the student body at universities in Damascus, Aleppo and the coastal city of Latakia.

Sarah, an electrical engineering student at Aleppo University, lives in the regime-held area of the city.

“I find no difficulty in reaching the university, because the road between my house and the campus is controlled by the Syrian army,” she says. “But many of my friends who live on the east side, which is under the control of the Free Syrian Army, are unable to reach it.”

Sarah says that almost half of her peers have been forced to drop out of classes, and during a recent exam period, the worsening security situation stopped three-fourths of the school’s registered students from reaching campus.

Most wealthy Syrian parents are sending their children to study abroad in cities like London and Dubai.  But for most families, the tuition outside Syria is exorbitant, and the depreciation of the Syrian pound has only lessened this possibility. Learning the language of a non-Arabic-speaking country is another hurdle.

Instead, the vast majority of students from opposition-held areas have put their studies on hold until the war is over and they feel it’s safe for them to return. Studying abroad, Sami says, is “a distant hope.”

The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) hopes to establish university options for the opposition-held areas, but with opposition politicians preoccupied with internal fragmentation and a ground battle against both Bashar al-Assad and extremist rebel groups, those promises remain unfulfilled.

Another key challenge is to gain accreditation for the diplomas to be offered by those universities. But the biggest fear of all is that the new institutions will be bombarded from the air.

Even students who earned a high school diploma through a special wartime Coalition program face an uncertain future. Designated universities in neighboring Turkey recognize the certificate, but to attend one, Syrian students still must pass a Turkish language exam.

Nazeer is one of those students. “We know that the Coalition diploma is not very reliable or recognized by many countries, but we have no other choice,” he says. “For me, the possibility of studying in Turkey is not an option. It is too expensive and I need to learn Turkish.”

He lives in a rural, rebel-held area in Aleppo province. He says he did not transfer to a high school in a government-controlled area for fear of being detained on the drive over, and now, like many others, he waits.

This article was translated from Arabic by Zain Frayha.

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