Time to face the facts on Syrian refugee academics

MEHMET SOLMAZ
BRUSSELS
Published 25.02.2019 00:06

When Syrians had to flee the rain of bullets and barrel bombs in their ancient towns, they also left their libraries and schools in ruins. Those who spent years learning and teaching in Syrian universities were among the millions who sought safe shelter in other lands. Last week, several Turkish rectors arrived in Brussels to talk about the importance of "Academic Heritage in the Middle East." The panel lacked sufficient interest from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), so-called refugee-friendly circles and humanitarian assistance advocates. There were striking facts put forward by the rectors, some of which were not even heard by the press in Turkey.

"Currently, there are around 400 Syrian refugee academics being employed at the universities in our country. The number of Syrian students in Turkish higher education is above 20,000," one of them said. While the crowd was already astonished by the figures, he continued: "A recent survey conducted with the participation of Syrian students show that 52.5 percent of them are not considering moving to a third country after the completion of their studies in Turkey."

These figures reminded me of a piece I read in the Guardian back in 2017. It was about a German academic Carmen Bachmann who decided to create a website called "Chance for Science" in an attempt to create a network to connect refugee academics in the country.

Around 150 Syrian academics registered on a website supported by several institutions, such as the German National Library. The project, which was solely established with philanthropic intentions by a courageous academic, does not promise employment nor assist job-seekers further than including some job adverts on the website. Their Facebook page, with only two posts in the past 12 months, explains how promising this idle initiative is. Bachmann was deservingly invited to Brussels by the EU for her project.

Meanwhile, the EU and some European foundations provide fully funded research fellowships for refugees, but no promise of a job. The academic journal Physics Today published pages long articles on individual stories of refugee academics and certain initiatives established in Europe and the U.S. to assist them with continuing their career. However, there was no good news of any refugees being able to find jobs at a university. No one should judge the intention behind such initiatives in Europe, but if these programs do not produce efficiency or results, then there is a problem. The EU has already pledged some monetary funds to Turkey to spend on Syrian refugees and around half of the promised amount had already been allocated through various aid agencies. Brussels, or even Berlin, could hold a dialogue with the Turkish Higher Education Board to see what sort of changes they had to undertake in their regulations and how they overcome the adaptation process of the Syrians employed in Turkish universities.

Turkish educators would not refrain from sharing their experiences. The EU could also allocate some further funds for an integration and adaptation program for unemployed refugee academics in Turkey.

Aside from providing refugee academics with job opportunities, Turkey has also recently taken several steps in the academic field. For instance, the Yunus Emre Institute has recently established the Academic and Scientific Cooperation Project of Turkey (TABİP), which runs under the auspices of the Presidency of the Turkish Republic. The project has promising objectives for scientific diplomacy and has already started collaboration talks with international education bodies and science foundations. Bringing scientists and educators together on a portal that provides rich resources, contacts, events, vacancy and bursary postings is something no academic would want to skip.

At a time where European cooperation with Ankara is limited in fields such as security, trade and migration, the sides could open a new window with an initiative in the academic world. This may not change the political climate but will certainly have an effect on science and people's lives.

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