The total number of Syrian refugees is currently pegged at 4.8 million, as per a July 2016 report by the United State High Commissioner for Refugees. Of these, some 2,000 are displaced professors. The IIE estimates that less than 10 percent of these scholars have been able to continue their jobs. It’s a sobering thought. For the scholars that do make it out, complications arise due, in part, to the Lisbon Convention, which requires refugees to have their qualifications ratified in order to find work in their fields. For those who have lost their documentation in the process of migration, this can become very difficult.
For those who stay, the situation is just as bad, if not worse. “Living in Iraq became almost impossible,” explains al Jumaily, a scholar-artist who received his M.A. from the University of Basra in Iraq, where he went on to teach at its College of Fine Arts. He soon discovered, however, that some of his colleagues in the faculty had forged qualifications, and supported, or were members of, various dangerous militia and religious parties. The university’s administration, he says, was helpless to intervene.
“When I learned this, I wanted no part of it,” Jumaily says. Threats soon followed, and, along with his wife, he was forced to flee to Jordan. “The experience of leaving my family, my mother, my friends and community, with no money, was a tough experience. It was sad and painful, but it was better than being killed by a terrorist, and better than educating future killers or supporting radical religious thought,” he says. “I do not want to be an accomplice in the destruction of Iraq.”
For Syrian professor of arts Jaber, one of the 90 Syrian scholars supported by IIE-SRF, similar circumstances eventually forced her hand and led to her relocation to Montclair State University in New Jersey. “A distinct turning point was when my husband was kidnapped and my son’s friend was killed at the university,” she told me. Having studied in Poland, where she received her doctorate and lived for seven years, Jaber had returned to Syria and established one of the first theater and design undergraduate programs at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus.
“Like most countries where dictatorships prevail, there is the repression of ideas and beliefs,” she says. “To criticize the status quo, its rules or beliefs, is a major crime.” Her work, while subtle, still brought her threats and defamation. “In Syria, as artists, our creativity was under captivity,” she says. “Since leaving Syria, I have become braver and more free in how I express myself. I do not want to leave room for interpretation. I want my work to be shocking and shed light on what is happening to human beings elsewhere in the world.”