"Assad or we burn the country" said the Syrian dictator from the outset of the revolution. A grim promise made in 2011 that if the demonstrations didn't stop he would make life so unbearable opponents would be forced to surrender. A terrifying two years later, Assad has been true to his word. Over 100,000 Syrians are dead; countless children are in need of psychotherapy, women are being raped in front of their families and a third of the country has literally been burnt to the ground.
Whilst thousands of Syrians have escaped this destruction and fled across the border to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, some are currently living in exile in the UK. One of them is Nebal Istanbouly who is studying a PhD in biomedical sciences here in London. Arriving in 2007 he first completed a masters degree in Newcastle before moving to the capital. Back home he was an assistant teacher at al-Fourat University in north east Syria, and was supposed to return to his post after finishing his studies. "But as an activist I won't risk it" he tells me.
Based on the fact that many of the opposition revolutionaries are young students, part of Assad's campaign has been to target universities. "The regime thinks more pressure should be put on the academics as this will impact their activities. It's a kind of suppression on the academics so that suppression moves onto the activists" he says. There has also been a crackdown on medics and Syrians teaching in university hospitals, a nasty attempt to block anybody helping the injured. "Doctors are under huge pressure because they can help give medical or humanitarian aid" Istanbouly points out.
To help his country, at first Istanbouly started demonstrating. Then he began to organise protests. Now he coordinates fundraising events to deliver humanitarian aid and holds workshops in the House of Commons to draw more people's attention to what is happening at home. "We need to raise the voice the Syrian revolution here in the UK" he tells me "it's not easy to get people's attention. We need humanitarian and medical aid. But the most needed is awareness of what this regime is doing to the Syrian people."
Like many Syrians, before 2011 Istanbouly was not an activist. But as the violence increased, so did his desire to take action. "I started thinking about and seeing what's going on. I saw the killing in Syria and thought I should support the revolution because it's just for freedom." In fact, the revolution has brought a lot of Syrians together, despite the regime investing many years sowing seeds of doubt about one another. "The best thing the revolution did is that it broke the ice blockage between Syrian people. So we started trusting each other and that's why the mukhabarat's [intelligence] rule became weaker."
Still, living in London is not always straightforward. Many of the students have had their funding pulled by the Syrian government, leaving them in an expensive city with huge expenses to pay. Though the Home Office in Britain announced a freeze on fees for Syrians studying in the UK, "costs of living in England are still high" he points out, and some have had to return. He describes a friend who visited Syria and was arrested for four months over a Facebook post. "So I'm finishing my scholarship and they're asking me to go back to Syria" says Istanbouly. "No way."
One way for academics still in Syria to reach the UK is through The Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (Cara). The organisation began 80 years ago to create a safe passage for eastern European academics escaping Nazi oppression and has since helped scholars escape repressive regimes across the world. Kate Robertson, Middle East programme manager, explains there has been a steady increase in Syrians applying for the programme as "there is no end in sight." Yet the Assad regime has placed restrictions on their movements in an attempt to curb their departure.
According to Robertson, at first these applications came from academics who had been stranded in the UK, or who had their funding cut short. More recently requests are coming through from intellectuals still in Syria, or those who have fled to the neighbouring countries. "We have had 49 enquiries since the start of the year, with at least one new one a day now and increasingly from Syria. Of the 49 enquiries, the male to female ratio is 3:1. 45% are in the UK and 35% still in Syria, the remainder are evenly spread across the region: Egypt, UAE, Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi, Jordan."
To qualify for the programme, applicants must prove that they have had a paid position as a lecturer or researcher in a higher education institution or equivalent, submit a statement of personal risk and references. "Once eligibility has been verified, it is often a question of first come first served in terms of who we manage to line up a doctoral or post-doctoral university offer for – usually but not exclusively in the UK" says Robertson. She adds that placements can also be dependent on funds and are awarded in line with dependents. "The various UK visa requirements can slow down the process when there is a spouse and a number of children."
If the academics have a university offer with full waiver fee and a complementary CARA fellowship letter – and no family – individuals coming to do a PhD have a high success rate. But academics can only apply for visas from either Amman or Beirut, so they must get there first. Many have to provide evidence of enough funds to cover the cost of their dependents in the UK. This money must have been in their accounts for three months before the application; a large sum when totted up with the cost of travel. Though she does point out that universities in the UK have been "incredibly supportive."
According to Roberts, whilst the international community is understandably focused on humanitarian needs, supporting academics is a longer term concern for the future of the country: "It is difficult to get their attention in terms of addressing what appear to be longer term concerns, i.e. the sustaining of Syria's intellectual capital during this period of uncertainty, given its vital role in the rebuilding of Syria's higher education sector and Syria itself."
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