Studying in Syria: “My university campus is like a military zone”

 
More than 80 people died when two explosions tore through the University of Aleppo on Tuesday, which coincided with the first day of exams. In Syria, thousands of students are trying to continue their studies, despite the conflict. Two students gave us their first-hand accounts of what it’s like to study in a country at war.
 
Most of the dead in Tuesday’s attack were students. Student activists blame government air strikes for the attack, while the army claims the devastation was caused by “two surface-to-air missiles [fired by the rebels] which missed their target”. The governor of Aleppo, Mohammad Wahid Akkad, called the blasts a “terrorist attack”.
 
Video showing the University of Aleppo's campus following the explosions on Tuesday. 
 
Universities nationwide were closed on Wednesday for mourning. In the 22 months of bloody conflict, the attack was one of the deadliest so far. The state-run news agency Sana reported that President Bachar al-Assad had ordered “the immediate repair of the damage to allow students to continue studying and take their exams”. The University of Aleppo meanwhile has indefinitely postponed all the exams scheduled for January 16 and 17.
 
Students pursuing higher education in Syria generally in the capital Damascus or Aleppo. Founded in the early 20th century, the capital’s university is the oldest in Syria. It is also the biggest. Deir al-Zour, Homs and Lattakia are also home to universities, albeit less prestigious ones.
 
The University of Aleppo campus. Non-dated photo. 
 
Many students have fled Syria for neighbouring countries, and some have tried to continue their studies in their new homes. In Lebanon, some of those who can afford to are pursuing their studies at the country’s private universities, but many others have found that their Syrian coursework is not recognised there.
 
Turkey is the most welcoming country for students; the government has allowed Syrians with an official refugee card to study in a number of Turkish universities. Seventy student refugees are pursuing their undergraduate degrees and ten have signed up for masters courses in Turkey. Meanwhile, nothing has been organised to accommodate students who seek refuge in Iraq and Jordan.
Contributors

“For the last two years the mood has not been conducive to study; the university campus is like a military zone”

Abo-Taim (not his real name) is a student at the University of Aleppo. He is the spokesperson for a student group.
 
I haven’t been able to go to my classes this year, but Tuesday I went to the exams try to pass the year, seeing as I didn’t pass last year. After the explosion, I decided to never go back again. Since last year [Editor’s note: the 2011-2012 school year], the students who go have stopped taking “practical” classes, as three absences means you’re kicked out. But going to “theory” classes is not mandatory.
 
The university was been the epicentre of protests when they kicked off in the northwest region. Some students were thrown out because they were in contact with a United Nations delegation that visited the city. But some support the regime, and they benefit from preferential treatment from the university’s administration.
 
The entrance of the University of Aleppo's arts department. de l'entrée de la faculté des Arts de l'université d'Alep.
 
The university has been the epicentre of protests in the northwest region. Some students were thrown out because they were in contact with a United Nations delegation that visited the city. But some support the regime, and they benefit from preferential treatment from the university’s administration.
 
For the last two years the mood on campus has not been conducive to study. The university campus is like a military zone. We have to go through three checkpoints to get onto the campus: one is run by the army, one by security forces and the third by the Popular Defense Committee [a local armed group that supports the regime]. Despite all this “security”, I was able to get through Tuesday by bribing the men guarding the checkpoints. Other students try to jump over the fences with the help of a professor or someone from the administration.
 
“The taxi ride to get to the University has gone up from 5 to 250 [Syrian] pounds”
 
Of late, no more than 10% of the number of students who are signed up at the university have actually been showing up. In peace time, around 80,000 are on campus [Editor’s note: this statistic dates from 2008]. But many still came to take their mid-term exams. The university could have taken into account the difficulties students have in getting through their courses by decreasing the number of exams to cover only essential subjects, but they didn’t.
 
Students preparing to take their exams on Tuesday, before the explosions. 
 
And it’s not just security problems that are an issue. A taxi ride cost 5 Syrian pounds before the recent events; today it costs 250 pounds, so that’s 500 for a round trip. Many students just don’t have the means to travel to and from university. Those who go to classes are the ones who live nearby.
 
Video of a protest by students in Damascus in support of students at the University of Aleppo. 
 
We’re trying to hold on to our right to a student life despite the conflict and violence. Even if some of us have participated in protests, myself included, we’re still students who never wanted violence.
 

“Because of the roadblocks and the combat zones, my route to university has gone up from 5 km to 50 km”

Abou Bassam is a final year architecture student at the University of Damascus.
 
 
I had planned to finish my architecture degree in 2013, but last year I only went to classes in the first semester. And this year I signed up but haven’t been to any classes. I haven’t taken any exams. So this is the second year I’m failing.
 
To get to campus from the suburb where I live, I took public transportation, but because of the roadblocks and the combat zones, my route to university went up from 5 kilometres to 50 kilometres.
 
Because I live in a rebel-occupied area, it’s dangerous for me to go into parts of the city under government control. Of course, there are students who have enough money to rent apartments or rooms near the university, but they are a minority. A lot of students regularly run into problems with the security forces. Some have been put in prison. Even those who try to continue their studies from a distance face hurdles, like the electricity or the Internet frequently cutting out.
 
“There have new appointments in the top ranks of the university’s administration: all those who are new are close to the regime”
 
Security forces and government intelligence have a strong presence all over the campus. If we try to explain the difficulties that prevent us from coming to university, we risk getting ourselves in trouble and being identified as suspects. Nevertheless, some professors are more understanding with students in my situation, but they’re discreet about it as they’re also at serious risk. Recently, there have new appointments in the top ranks of the university’s administration: all those who are new are close to the regime.
 
 
 
Billet écrit avec la collaboration de Wassim Nasr (@SimNasr), journaliste à FRANCE24.
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