News & AnalysisScholar Rescue

A Lifeline for Syria's Science Exiles

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Science  24 Jan 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6169, pp. 360
DOI: 10.1126/science.343.6169.360
War zone.

Bombings at the University of Aleppo in January 2013 killed dozens.

CREDIT: GEORGE OURFALIAN/CORBIS

For Talal Al-Mayhani, the defining moment of the ill-fated Syrian Spring came in June 2011. As the uprising against the regime was gaining momentum, the young neuroscientist took part in an opposition summit in Damascus. During a press conference, two strangers shouted at Al-Mayhani and others on the podium, calling them traitors and dogs. In the days that followed, attendees were arrested and he received chilling phone threats. A month later, Al-Mayhani fled, returning to the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, where he had earned his doctorate.

Many of Al-Mayhani's colleagues, however, have no such escape route.

As violence in Syria escalates and the regime increasingly targets academics, an international effort to support Syria's beleaguered scholars with visas, fellowships, and guest appointments is gaining momentum. The Institute of International Education (IIE) in New York City has handed out 43 yearlong academic fellowships to displaced Syrians since the current conflict began. Now, it is appealing for funds, and for safe havens to step forward. Several hundred European universities have pledged to take at least one student, and the philanthropic Carnegie Corporation of New York has chipped in $500,000 for fellowships, which provide up to $25,000 to scholars. But "the need is 10 or 100 times what any of us are able to raise," says IIE President Allan Goodman.

As Syria's civil war drags into a third year, reports of interrogations and torture of professors are becoming commonplace. Dozens have been kidnapped for ransom or assassinated. University students are detained at checkpoints and conscripted to fight for the regime or for rebel groups. About 30% of Syria's professors have left the country, including many of the best, says Amal Alachkar, a neurobiologist from the University of Aleppo now at the University of California, Irvine. Some have ended up in refugee camps, while others have vanished. "Higher education, especially research, is collapsing," she says.

Conditions in Syria deteriorated much faster than they did in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, Goodman says. "What's different about Syria is that universities were targeted right away, professors were threatened right away. The regime knew who their opponents were and instantly targeted them," he says. "The immediacy of attacking education really hasn't happened in any other place."

In some ways, Syrian academia had thrived under President Bashar Assad, who took power following his father's death in 2000. University enrollments rose and professors were encouraged to set up labs. But campuses have always been infested with security and intelligence agents, and "informers are everywhere," Alachkar says. Regime loyalty, evidenced by membership in the ruling Ba'ath Party and overt patriotism, became the litmus test for faculty advancement, Alachkar says.

Safe haven.

Amal Alachkar found succor at the University of California.

CREDIT: COURTESY OF AMAL ALACHKAR

Students were taught to not question authority, but in the spring of 2011 they started to protest openly on many campuses. Alachkar says she encouraged her students to express themselves peacefully. "I was not brave enough to ignite it, but I was waiting for that moment," she says. Syrian intelligence caught wind of her activism and interrogated her that March. It was early in the uprising, and "they didn't want to make a big fuss," she says. "They said, 'We'll let it go this time, but be careful.' "

That July, however, a fellow Aleppo professor, Jamal Tahhan, was arrested and detained for 5 months after forming a committee to document peaceful protests; Alachkar says he was tortured. She got the message. Less than a year after getting her neuroscience lab in Aleppo up and running, she shuttered it and left Syria. Aleppo's cancer research unit, which Al-Mayhani had helped found, also closed after his departure. In mid-2012, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas pulled out of Aleppo, its former grounds looted and "now a war zone," says Ahmad Sadiddin, an agricultural economist from Damascus who with an IIE grant found refuge at the University of Florence in Italy.

Many professors and students flee without passports across the porous borders to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, where they often end up in refugee camps. That poses a fresh challenge for IIE: "How do you deal with professors in camps who can't travel to another country?" Goodman asks. To keep the intellectual fires burning, IIE is exploring how to provide materials for 3-week courses that could be taught by scholars in the camps while they await placement in Europe or the United States, Goodman says: "Something they can do other than sit in their tent and worry about how bad things are."

With the Assad regime and rebels locked in a bloody stalemate, Syrian scholars who have started new lives overseas say they are forced to take a long view. After returning to Cambridge, Al-Mayhani, now an IIE scholar, co-founded Building the Syrian State, a group that he says advocates "an end to the violence and an end to the despotic regime." He says he has come to terms with the prospect of never returning to his homeland. Alachkar knows that may also be her fate. "I feel like the situation in Syria is killing me every day," she says.

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