Work of rebuilding Syria will fall to a ‘lost generation’
If the country’s future is its children, Syria’s reconciliation and reconstruction will fall to a group of young people forced from schools — a "lost generation." It’s a dramatic change for a country with a relatively high standard of education. A new Human Rights Watch report notes that "In 2010, about 93 percent of all ...
If the country's future is its children, Syria's reconciliation and reconstruction will fall to a group of young people forced from schools -- a "lost generation."
If the country’s future is its children, Syria’s reconciliation and reconstruction will fall to a group of young people forced from schools — a "lost generation."
It’s a dramatic change for a country with a relatively high standard of education. A new Human Rights Watch report notes that "In 2010, about 93 percent of all eligible children were enrolled in primary education, and 67 percent in secondary education. Before the war, literacy rates among young people were high: approximately 95 percent of the population between ages 15 and 24 could read and write." Early in his presidency, Bashar al-Assad initiated a series of education reforms, increasing the quality of instruction and expanding opportunities for collegiate education.
It’s difficult to separate higher education from Ba’ath Party privilege, but it also "was linked to social mobility and the attainment of middle-class status," according to a recent study of refugee students and academics conducted by the University of California, Davis Human Rights Initiative and the Institute for International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund. "Syria’s university campuses were the domain of both its established middle class and its aspiring lower middle class," Keith Watenpaugh, director of the UC Davis-HRI, told Foreign Policy by email. "They were one of the few social spaces in Syria, outside of the military, where Sunnis, Alawites and Christians mixed with any frequency."
The war has changed that. "UNICEF and other humanitarian organizations have made it very clear that the entire education sector in Syria is collapsing," Watenpaugh tells FP — a fact also demonstrated by the new HRW report, "Safe No More: Students and Schools under Attack in Syria," about primary and secondary education. "As anti-regime higher education professionals and students have fled the country or stopped attending the universities, the remaining faculty are mostly regime loyalists. For decades Syria has been hemorrhaging its best and brightest — tired of the party, but also the loss of opportunity. The war has accelerated that process."
As schools are closed by the violence and university students flee the country, those opportunities are slipping away. When Watenpaugh and his co-authors visited the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan in April, relief workers told him that there were no university students among the camp’s 140,000 residents, "only poor and uneducated villagers," he wrote in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. That simply wasn’t true. In their conversations with overlooked refugee students at the camp, they found them eager "to renew their studies, even if it meant leaving their families and traveling farther abroad," but they also found that their efforts to continue their education have been stifled by a lack of money, studying opportunities, and paperwork (like transcripts and standardized test results left behind).
Watenpaugh hopes that special arrangements can be made for visiting students in the region, especially in Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey, where there are many universities and, in many cases, lower tuition costs than in Jordan. Otherwise, post-conflict Syria could face an even steeper class divide. "Often when we focus on the elite," he tells FP, "we end up enabling emigration and not empowering large numbers of mid-range students to go home and rebuild their societies." It’s a bleak prospect that could leave students who thought they were rising in society "at the bottom end of the economic ladder — either in Syria or on the margins of Jordanian, Lebanese, and Turkish society."
That disappointment will exacerbate the prospects for peace in the long-term, he writes by email: "That loss of status is a sure path to anomie and radicalization. Angry, resentful, and left-out, those students who fall off the edge, as it were, will be a burden on any peace and reconciliation process."
The fight for Syria seems as intractable as ever, but the struggle for what comes next is already well underway.
J. Dana Stuster was an assistant editor at Foreign Policy from 2013-2014. Twitter: @jdanastuster
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