Education is the cornerstone of participatory democracy. It empowers citizens to lead their societies, engage in robust policy debate, and challenge their governments in constructive dissent. For my students and fellow faculty at the University of California-Irvine, where I am a visiting researcher, this is a given. For dictators like President Bashar al-Assad, this is a threat.
By enforcing the dictator’s rule and false ideals of “good citizenship,” the education system in my native Syria has endeavored to raise generations of pliable young loyalists who would not dare to use their power of knowledge to question the authorities. For over 40 years, Syrian universities suffered more than any other institutions in the country from interference in daily life by the Baath Party and its intelligence agencies. These four decades of repression constituted a long pregnancy that gave birth to the Syrian spring.
The Syrian uprising was driven not merely by economic factors but by students reacting to lengthy periods of oppression, humiliation and loss of dignity. Unfortunately, terrified by the regime’s well-known brutality, the majority of Syrian professors did not join the students’ cause. Motivated by a deeply rooted belief that a professor’s role is to cultivate scientific curiosity and promote a culture of free speech, I was among the minority of academics who supported the student movement and openly condemned the regime for its crimes, questioning its legitimacy.
I was interrogated and threatened by the Air Force Intelligence, one of Syria’s most brutal secret agencies, and accused of publicly condemning the regime’s brutal response to the demonstrations and inciting students to protest. Dr. Jamal Tahhan, a philosophy professor at the University of Aleppo, was detained for five months for founding a committee to organize and document peaceful protests.
A number of academic and medical staff vanished or were assassinated because of their support for democratic change: Dr. Abdulbasset Arjah and Dr. Sakhr Hallak were assassinated; Dr. Noor Maktabi was detained for several months and tortured to death; and Dr. Mohammad Arab has been incarcerated since November 2011.
Other scholars continue to suffer targeted threats, detention, torture and execution. In some cases, these measures extend to their friends and family.
As students and faculty flee the conflict, some academic departments, including mine, suffered the loss of entire faculty cadres and a dramatic decrease in the number of students who are able to attend classes.
Thousands of students remain in detention or have been disappeared, and thousands more have fled with their families to safer areas within Syria and to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Most of those who have stayed cannot reach their schools due to the violence. This is particularly the case at the insidious regime checkpoints, where armed guards have the authority to humiliate, arrest or kill anyone, irrespective of age, due to their cities of origin, family name, lack of ID or on other whims.
In June 2012, the burned bodies of three medical students, Basel Aslan, Mus’ab Barad and Hazem Batikh, were found one week after their capture by soldiers at an Aleppo checkpoint. Their crime was working with a medical aid group to treat wounded protesters.
In January 2013, the bodies of several college students, who traveled from their home villages to Aleppo to complete their final exams, were found floating in a local river after they were executed at a regime checkpoint. These are but a few examples from a myriad of tragic endings to the lives of academics in my country. We are reminded every day of the plight of innocent relatives, including the children and elderly family members of wanted activists, who have suffered the same treatment, or the thousands of others whose fates are still unknown.
After more than 26 months of the war, the education system in Syria has effectively collapsed.
There is an urgent need for international action to protect what is left of the Syrian national academy and in due course reconstruct it. I am fortunate to be among those protected by one vital effort, the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund.
Until I can go back to help rebuild Syria, IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund and UC Irvine support me and my research on the neurological mechanisms of psychiatric disorders. Although I am displaced and separated from my people, I continue my academic work, and advocate for the basic freedoms that all Syrians have been denied for decades.
I long to be home, but until that is possible, I will make my voice heard from abroad.
Professors and students form the core human capital needed to rebuild the country. By preserving their lives and careers now, we are investing in the future leaders, who will shape a new political system and foster a culture of democracy, trust and tolerance. The salvation of Syria will be achieved only by the collective efforts of the freely educated.