Khaldoun was trying to get his master’s degree in information systems in Damascus. The war came to his neighborhood three times, and each time he had to move. The first time he lost his laptop, his textbooks, his flash drives and had to start his studies all over again. The other two times he also had to redo much of his work.
Khaldoun, who has a lean, restless energy, finished his degree. But with two children and a pregnant wife, he decided it was time to leave. He went first to Lebanon, then to Turkey. Now his dream is to get a Ph.D.
In recent interviews in Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, and Istanbul, my colleague, Rasha Faek, and I met many Syrians like Khaldoun. We interviewed them in cafes, in offices, in a bookstore with exposed brick walls and wooden beams, and in a sleek downtown Istanbul hotel lobby. We met the bookstore owner, two organizers of a Syrian think tank, and a raft of students, including some who are organizing to help each other get access to universities. The details of their lives may have differed, but the spirit behind most of the Syrians we met was the same.
We were almost taken aback at their persistence and motivation. The news coming out of Syria continues to be bleak, but the spirit of many Syrians is still strong.
These days, a nation’s people are often defined by the latest negative news event that has taken place in their country. Syrians are probably the most extreme example of that. “People see Syrians as people who are running away or killing each other,” says Samer Al Kadri, one of the founders of the bookstore, Pages. “ He founded it in Istanbul three months ago with a determination to spread Syrian and Arab literature and to create a “culture house” where people of all political and religious beliefs could have conversations, listen to music, and read books.
In Gaziantep, a city of roughly two million Turks that has 500,000 Syrian refugees, Rasha and I were also surprised at what we found. Far from suffering economically, Gaziantep, a largely modern city with fragments of the ancient past here and there, is prospering. Syrian businessmen from Aleppo have moved their factories to Gaziantep and are trying to nurture the sort of entrepreneurship that will be needed when the war is over.
Entrepreneurship is a facile word for the stubbornness and creative spirit required to start new ventures in the midst of a civil war. The Syrian Economic Forum, one effort supported in part by Syrian businessmen, tracks economic data inside of Syria but is also moving to educate a new generation of entrepreneurial Syrians, as part of its mission to create a “free, pluralistic, and independent homeland.” Next month the forum expects to start an online education program at locations inside Syria but outside of regime control, teaching skills such as writing business proposals, time management, and negotiation. The program’s graduates can apply for micro-loans to start new ventures relevant to local needs.
Such NGOS and civil society institutions haven’t existed under the Assad regime: They were squashed as possible breeding grounds for the opposition. Only very basic charities were allowed. Syrians are looking for guidance and support in setting up new civil institutions, but they are very capable of keeping the steering wheels in their own hands.
Subhe Mustafa, a senior project officer with SPARK, a Dutch NGO that is helping Syrian students at the University of Gaziantep, used to run English language institutes in Syria, before he had to flee with his family. He knows Hebrew and French, and has a master’s degree in English literature. He quotes Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, and would love to meet Noam Chomsky. “As a trainer I try to understand the personal characteristics of my trainees,” he says. “All minds are beautiful, but they are different.”
When the day comes to rebuild Syrian education, he would love to take the opportunity to improve it, and not just “copy and paste” from the past.
Subhe introduced us to Shaimaa, 19 and the oldest of three sisters, who is watching over her younger siblings while working on a degree in food engineering at the University of Gaziantep and starting a side vocation in fashion designing. For the time being Shaimaa is content in Turkey. “I don’t feel like a stranger here,” she says. The girls’ mother is in the Netherlands, trying to restart a career as a geologist.
A group of 18 Syrian students in Gaziantep have created a Facebook page that seeks to help other students who trying to get access to Turkish universities. (A similar group, Khatwa, exists in Egypt.) “We’re not just writing about problems but finding solutions,” says Souhaib Al-Shihabi, the founder of the Gaziantep-based group, the Syrian Students’ Office of University Services. The students carefully compile facts, check them, and post them. They have five computers among 18 students. How little it would take to accelerate their effort.
I am grateful that over the past three years I have come to know Syrians as more than points on maps on the television news or 30-second sound bites from interviews conducted at Hungarian fences. There are destitute Syrians on the streets of Beirut and many other Middle Eastern cities, shining shoes and begging for coins, and they also need assistance. But there are also many Syrians bootstrapping their own way up as best they can.
The world needs to tap this talent, not leave it idling for decades. “If the world can’t help us militarily or politically, at least they can help us in education,” says Khaldoun.