When was Syria last in the headlines? When has a Western leader made a statement recently, in which Syria was again the center of attention? Interest in Syria has disappeared. The country’s civil war, nearing the end of its eighth year, has devolved into a series of local skirmishes, which many hope will conclude with some kind of cease-fire agreement.
Diplomatic efforts aimed at establishing a new or at least different kind of government in Damascus have been proceeding sluggishly. Summit meetings, which have become part of the international agenda, are in fact scheduled in the coming weeks, but no one is holding their breath over them.
Once again, Russia, Turkey and Iran are trying to come up with various steps. The United States is not involved in the process and the Arab countries are addressing the situation with a yawn.
The center of attention in the region has shifted to issues such as whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, American sanctions on Iran and this month’s U.S. midterm elections. News reports about locales such as Aleppo and Idlib, which had become household names, are no longer a subject of conversation, and interest in the Islamic State has even faded except as regards the fragments of territory over which it is still waging occasional battles.
Those for whom the war has still not ended and has turned life upside down are the millions of Syrians refugees who have fled to Europe or Arab countries, or who are living a hand-to-mouth existence in their country but can’t return to their homes.
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At this point, most of Syria is under the control of President Bashar Assad's regime, and signs of any reconstruction efforts there are still far from apparent. The tens of billions of dollars that such a process demands, along with the more than $500 billion loss to the Syrian economy, are mentioned in reports by international institutions but at this stage no one country or group of nations has agreed to come up with a donation.
Apparently other countries are waiting for some kind of agreement and the establishment of a stable government in Syria that will administer funds properly and oversee what is spent. It’s hard to point fingers at potential donor nations in light of the bitter experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, where most contributions made their way into the pockets of individuals who were close to the regime or otherwise mired in corruption.
The groups that are nevertheless still raising and donating funds to Syria are private and semi-governmental organizations that continue to operate in various realms, such as health services or education. But even in those fields, donations are drying up and services are being slashed.
Among those suffering are tens of thousands of university students in Syria or citizens who have found refuge neighboring countries, who are unable to obtain scholarship money. UNESCO, for example, halted its scholarship program for B.A. students after granting more than 1,000 scholarships for the 2016-17 academic year.
In Lebanon, home to some 1.2 million Syrian refugees, the university students have encountered onerous bureaucracy, and many Lebanese are demanding that the organization offering funds explain how helping the newcomers serves the interests of their country.
The Lebanese Association for Scientific Research, which has in the past provided scholarships to Syrian students, is facing a worrisome situation in which half of them have dropped out of school because they have to work. The association now only grants scholarships to students in certain fields in Lebanon, such as medicine and engineering, that will assure them employment after they graduate. Although the dropout rate has fallen dramatically to just 2 percent at present, the number of scholarships has also shrunk substantially.
The Al-Fanar Media website, which focuses on academic life in Arab countries, reported that in 2017, only 65 Syrian students received scholarships from the Lebanese organization – as compared with 500 in 2016. That number is expected to drop this year to about 40.
Similarly, humanitarian aid groups working in Jordan are facing demands that they include Jordanian students, and not only their refugee colleagues, in their scholarship-funding programs.
In Turkey, where there are close to 3 million Syrian refugees, including about half a million of university age, the government has eased entry into local universities by eliminating the need for admission exams and sometimes even for proof of high-school graduation, in light of the large number of newcomers whose documents have been lost.
However, refugee students still face substantial difficulties – due to their lack of knowledge of Turkish, the low level of some of the instruction at local universities and colleges, and the need to earn a living, etc. As a result, only 4 percent of the Syrians who qualifying for these studies actually attend institutions of higher education in Turkey.
Some organizations that seek to help Syrian students – including the EU-funded Dutch nonprofit SPARK – are creating programs and raising funding aimed at encouraging Middle Eastern universities to accept the refugee students and integrate them into the communities where they are living. Underlying these efforts is the understanding that these students won’t be able to return to Syria for the foreseeable future, which makes their absorption in the host countries all the more important.
At the same, however, Syrian refugees applying for scholarships generally face stiff requirements from the groups that provide them, which prefer to fund only the most talented individuals and those with the highest grades.
The generation of university students living outside Syria today could constitute the professional and intellectual foundations for a country that has lost the capacity to train professionals at its own institutions of higher learning. Meanwhile, those who do manage to study at a local university, where tuition is free, are not always thought to have received a proper level of education due to low academic standards, the absence of up-to-date textbooks, poorly functioning labs and other facilities, and the absence of thousands of lecturers who have fled the country.
The expected disparity between the level of education of those students and the needs of the Syrian economy once rehabilitation efforts get underway is tremendous. It will likely take many years before local colleges and universities return to the point where they are able to offer a suitable education to their students, based on current and appropriate curriculums.