Human Rights Talk in England

“‘There are no students in Zataari:’ Refugee Higher Education and Saving a Generation of Syria’s Best and Brightest”

by Keith David Watenpaugh

Prepared Comments – Rhodes House and St. Anthony’s College, Oxford – May 11, 2017

(please do not cite without first contacting Keith Watenpaugh)

Last September 19, the United Nations issued the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. The document calls on member states to establish by 2018 a global compact for “safe, orderly and regular migration.”

In its broadest strokes, the document is an effort to protect the basic human rights of the globe’s displaced persons, including over 21 million refugees, it is also an effort to stem the rising tide of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee attitudes which fuels the social and economic anxiety of the West’s precariat – its precarious middle and lower-middle classes — who have, in recent elections placed our future and theirs in the hands of xenophobes, ultra-nationalists and demagogues.

The kind of global leadership, fact-based thinking and will that might have taken such a declaration and moved it forward is just not there, and as a consequence, we have entered a winter of uncertainty as to the degree to which the international community and individual nation states are prepared to uphold humanitarian and human rights law, most notably the 1951 Refugee Convention — perhaps the most robust, effective and durable human rights instrument available — and assist those displaced by war, a changing climate, failing economies and crumbling societies.

However, the fact that the document was needed in the first place signals a lack of confidence in contemporary institutions, legal structures and humanitarian tools: An attitude I find somewhat unwarranted and unreasonable, even as that attitude has become a recurring feature of the racist-inflected rhetoric of crisis used by politicians across the spectrum, the media and even in the academy to describe the contemporary challenges of war refugees and migration.

Part of the frame for my remarks this evening is that sense of uncertainty and the recognition that states and the international community have created a vacuum throughout the multiple fields of refugee assistance and protection as a consequence of their inaction and inattention.

As I have directed efforts over the last three years, in collaboration with organizations including the Institute of International Education, the Carnegie Corporation, Open Society Foundations and the Ford Foundation to better understand conditions facing refugee university students from the war in Syria, I have seen firsthand that lack of will and the insufficiency of support close up. I have gone from the camps in Jordan, tenements of Beirut, the ghettos of Turkey’s big cities and even the now-closed border between Greece and Macedonia, and witnessed the vast under-resourced refugee infrastructure failing, and failing not just refugees, but also those societies where the refugees have sought safety - Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Greece

Higher Education must help fill that vacuum, a role that The New York Declaration asks of it:

Article 84 states: We will support early childhood education for refugee children. We will also promote tertiary education, skills training and vocational education. In conflict and crisis situations, higher education serves as a powerful driver for change, shelters and protects a critical group of young men and women by maintaining their hopes for the future, fosters inclusion and non-discrimination, and acts as a catalyst for the recovery and rebuilding of post-conflict countries.

Many of you and the organizations you represent gathered here played a foundational role in ensuring that a commitment to higher education would be a pillar of the global humanitarian response to refugee displacement going forward. Nonetheless, this statement also places an immense but achievable burden on global higher education. And by higher education I mean our universities, elite colleges, community colleges, apprenticeship programs, our faculty, our students, our alumni and national and regional higher education bodies and cultural and artistic institutions. Higher education cannot not stand at the edges of the contemporary challenges posed by the mass movement of peoples, especially in the face of those challenges posed by the war in Syria. Rather higher education must occupy a central role in addressing the suffering and social and political challenges of refugees and the displaced.

And in an idea that I will return to at the conclusion of my talk: in order for the global higher education community to fulfill this role, it must move beyond (though certainly not abandoned) its traditional repertoire of global higher education practices and activities and accept a much broader two-part mandate:

First: to be a fundamental pathway for inclusion that will best help refugees and the states and societies where they have taken refuge. And;

Second: to be a force that will affirm through its collective action and advocacy the human right to education, and defend a human rights-based approach to addressing the global challenges of massive human displacement.

Let me shift gears for a moment:

This is old photo of me from in 1996. I was living in Aleppo, Syria. Many things in that picture just aren’t here anymore, in particular the minaret of Aleppo’s Grand Umayyad Mosque, built by Nur al-Din al Zengi in 12th Century – survived the Crusades, the Mongols, an earthquake and the French — but not an artillery shell in 2013. My brown beard is gone gray – something for which I hold my 10-year-old twins entirely responsible.

I mention this time in Syria, because I came to this work on refugees, not just as an educator, but also as a historian of mass violence, refugees and humanitarian relief in the Middle East. My most recent book, Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015) focuses on the global effort to address human suffering and rebuild communities of citizens from refugees in the era following the genocide of the Ottoman Armenians during World War One – which combined led to the deaths 1.2 million and sent 1 million into forcible displacement. This academic and lived experience, has given me deep understanding of how the region has been shaped and reshaped by the forced movement of peoples, the way living in an authoritarian society impacts the individual and the family, in addition to the nature of higher education and knowledge production in Syria.

Conducting research and seeking innovative ways to address the not-so-slowly unfolding human-made catastrophe of a lost generation of Syrian refugee university students has also been my way of trying understand the human cost of the war in Syria and explain it to my students, colleagues, the community, and, well anyone who will listen. Someday I will write a history of this, the humanitarian challenge of our generation; I will try to make understandable what to many of us has been such familiar horror.

Something I also learned from that work serves as the other frame for my talk this evening:

Refugees, and Syrian refugee young people and their families, recognize the crucial value of higher education in their lives, the survival of their communities and their inclusion in new states and societies; and they are willing to make enormous sacrifices to achieve that end.

2. There are No Students in Za‘atari

Taking advantage on an opportunity to participate in a workshop sponsored by the ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group’s Humanitarian History Project, I travelled to Jordan in the Spring of 2013. There was something less than 800,000 Syrian refugees at that moment. A decade before, I had become involved in efforts to help IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund assist Iraqi scholars – particularly in the period known as the “War on the Intellectuals.” I was curious if similar efforts were being mounted on behalf of Syria’s academics. Collaborating at a distance with the IIE SRF’s James King, I enlisted my colleague and fellow Syrian specialist, the lawyer and Harvard Humanitarian Initiative Fellow, Adrienne Fricke to help.

As we began our work in and around Amman, we became increasingly aware that the need amongst refugee students was acute — and being ignored. There were many more refugee students than we had anticipated. Which we shouldn’t have: The rate of post-secondary (called tertiary in Britain) attendance in Syria was around %20, which compares favorably to other states in the Mediterranean region. As the refugee population skewed young it should have come as no surprise; as was the fact that many of the young men we encountered had fled Syria to avoid compulsory military service and the abandonment of the practice of military deferments.

In that early period, we would still encounter young people who had been involved in the peaceful “Arab Spring” protests that had been violently suppressed by the régime. Speaking with this cadre of young people we learned how quickly in the wake of the protests, the régime cracked down on students and faculty at Damascus University and other institutions and used the university, its administration and a para-military Baathist student group to identify dissidents and marginalize or even violently eliminate opponents. If you were expelled from the university as many young men were, you were liable for immediate conscription. The young dissidents were often quite highly skilled in computing, social media, architecture and similar white-collar fields and some had found work – always illegal — in the Jordanian economy. Most wanted to leave the region; and the ones we grew closest to have found asylum, primarily in Canada.

In the Spring of 2013, 350,000 Syrians had taken refuge in Jordan and half of those were housed in the vast refugee camp: Mukhayam al-Zacatari. Between August 2012 and March 2013 – the camp had grown from 15,000 to 150,000 – making it the 4th largest city in Jordan. The population of the camp, had just doubled in the month before we arrived due to large-scale military activities in the south of Syria. And while preparing to visit the camp, we met with UN officials, primarily in the fields of culture and higher education and were told, categorically by one of the more prominent officials: “There are no students in Zaatari.”

Which we knew of course was not the case. The sentiment behind the comment told us much more about how the UN’s Humanitarian complex viewed Syrians – it was testament as well, to the low priority placed on higher education for refugees in the planning and implementation programs of the UN and its member states at that moment.

It was also definitive of the kind of “carceral humanitarianism” that prevails in the way Syrians are viewed in UN and national systems. In other words, Syrians were undifferentiated inmates of institutions of sequestration (camps) that held the individual in abeyance until they could return or be resettled. Little effort was taken to understand the complex and dynamic nature of the individual refugees, their trajectory and any possible opportunities of exile. In all fairness, few experts imagined that the war would last as it has and the UN’s broader position was shaped by the expectation that the conflict would resolve. They were trying to keep so many just fed and sheltered; as the UNHCR’s budget has shrunk relative to the numbers of refugees, this problem has grown more acute.

On a warm spring morning, my research team and I met with dozens of refugee university students in AL-Zacatari. It was a deeply inspiring moment for all of us. These young women (image) were in STEM and education fields – many on the cusp of graduation – most had fled because their fathers or brothers had been targeted by the regime. All wanted to resume their studies and many had made the trip to the Jordan University campus in Amman to see if they could enroll.

It seems obvious now, but to understand conditions facing refugee university students, spending time in a seminar like setting, talking, listening and comparing notes was effective. Through that method, we achieved a clearer and more comprehensive understanding of the problems and barriers faced and the value they placed on education, especially those forced from a solid middle-class life to the very margins of society like these young women. They indicated that they were under increasing family pressure to marry; that they all had problems with documentation of their transcripts and faced strange barriers including trying to have official transcripts made available – a Kafkaesque nightmare when one is a refugee; higher education costs were so high as to be unattainable – indeed, as the numbers of Syrians swelled in Jordan, Jordan U. abandoned the practice of charging Syrians “in-state” tuition.

I left the camp that evening and returned to Amman in the realization that this was more than just a problem that could be solved with a handful of grants or scholarships. Rather what was at stake was the loss of an entire generation of young, smart, talented and driven people who were supposed be the region’s doctors, engineers, teachers, accountants and architects.

My research team returned to the region a year later and initiated a more in-depth study throughout Lebanon. We arrived just as the millionth Syrian refugee was registered by the UNHCR there. He was a nineteen-year-old university student named Yahya who had fled across the border from Homs.

In Lebanon, we found again young Syrians who were trying to connect or indeed connecting with Higher Ed – many were working in the informal economy, some even in professional fields like pharmacy, accounting and teaching – others in low-skilled jobs –construction work, childcare, food services. In a meeting with students at Beirut’s Haigazian University, which had scholarship program for ethnic Armenian students fleeing Aleppo supported by the Gulbenkian Foundation, we encounter a young man who kept falling asleep as we spoke. He later apologized and explained that, while the scholarship covered his tuition, he was also working overnight in a bakery to support his extended family who had fled Aleppo with him. As a critical aside, his story highlights the fact that in many cases, university-age young people can be the sole means of support for their families; and in crafting educational programs and projects for young people it must be recognized that the short-term needs of supporting parents and younger brothers and sisters is often a barrier to accepting higher educational opportunities.

But we also found something much more disturbing while there. Let me quote from our 2013 report, “The War Follows Them.”

The history of Lebanon-Syria relations and Lebanon’s past experience with Palestinian refugees has contributed to the hostile reception many students face. In a group meeting with a dozen university administrators, we were struck by the attitudes exhibited by many Lebanese university administrators when discussing possible programs and policies for Syrians. In several cases, it was clear that their sense of educational mission or recognition of the basic human right to education did not extend to Syrians. Also, their collective attitude toward Syrian young people included a degree of animus that we, as well as local French diplomat observers who were at the same meeting, found both troubling and disproportionate.

As I came to understand the degree to which this historical animosity and forms of preexisting inter-communal tension had added additional layers of administrative and social prejudice to what was already such a difficult situation, I was very pessimistic we could help find a solution in Lebanon.

Following research in Istanbul and along the Syria-Turkey border over the subsequent summer, three recurring, critical headlines emerged from our work:

First: Fewer than 1 in 10 university-eligible Syrians had connected to higher educational opportunities and most of those had been enrolled before the war began;

Second: attendance by female refugees had plummeted and the pre-war parity between young men and young women enrolled in higher education had utterly collapse;

There are many reasons for this disparity; and recently I was speaking in Fresno, CA – massive resettlement site of Syrians and Iraqis - and amongst refugee assistance leadership, they too voiced concern about the drop-off of female attendance in California.

Third: is that while the war was having a terrible effect on these young people, even among those who had been distant from the immediate zones of conflict, being a student helped mitigate some of the stress and trauma of exile and the war.

A not surprising byproduct of exile has been the expanding political, social and professional horizons of many of the young people we encountered. This manifested in different ways: At a facility which Jusoor – one of the leading Syrian expatriate educational organizations — had established in South Beirut we spoke with a group of Syrian-nationality Kurdish young people. Most had been in law, medicine and journalism programs – but two of the women had come to see the war as moment to break away from pre-war Syria’s repression and build a new Rojava – Syrian Kurdistan — they told me they were prepared to fight, but also wanted to engage in their chosen professions. Equally, while in the ghetto of Esenler, just outside Istanbul, we asked a roomful of 17 and 18 -year-old Syrian high school students how many wanted to return to Syria and a just a handful raised their hands. Several even spoke of new-found freedoms in Turkey. I imagine that many of the young people in that room in 2014 were among the 100,000s that crossed into Greece in 2016.

3. Pathways of Inclusion

A year ago, at the abandoned Idomeni train station in Greece, I again spoke with young Syrians, this time Kurdish sisters from near Afrin. They were living in a makeshift refugee camp on the border with Macedonian. A few weeks before, a small boat had carried them across the Aegean from Turkey. Back home, the women, both in their 20s, had studied pre-med at the University of Aleppo. The older sister did the talking. She explained that they worked 16-hour days in an Istanbul sweatshop to make money for their passage. Like thousands of others at that camp, their onward march along the railroad tracks was halted by the abrupt closure of the border. Soldiers, concertina wire, and politicians riding a rising tide of xenophobia blocked their way. I later learned that they had slipped across the border with the help of a human smuggler. Facebook tells me they are in Vienna. I’ll never forget the only thing the younger sister did say: “I will not go back to Syria. I would rather have drowned in the sea.” I believed her.

As I looked out over the camp, which to my mind constituted a failure of Europe-as-an-idea to respond in a legal and humane fashion to a predictable movement of humanity, I couldn’t help but conclude I was seeing something new in the worst humanitarian catastrophe of our generation: the permanent displacement of millions of Syrians. These are people who will be unable or unwilling to return to their homeland, even if the war ends. Were 25% of the present refugee population not to repatriate, it would mean over a million people for whom the world would need to find a permanent home – something it has done for other populations of even greater relative size several times in the 100 years since the end of WWI. We must understand that the war in Syria isn’t just about the survival of the regime in Damascus. It’s about who will be allowed to live in Syria when it’s done. My own opinion is that most of the refugees outside its borders will not return. History here is prologue: a similar process of – and I hate to use this jargoned euphemism – “demographic engineering” — was visited upon the Armenians in 1922 when, in the aftermath of genocide, Turkey banned their return, again when the League of Nations exchange populations between Greece and Turkey, and again in 1948 when the violent creation of Israel made refugees of the Palestinians; Iraq in the 80s, the Balkans in the 90s and other moments of violence perpetrated to destroy or remove the undesirable, the unwanted or the rebellious. A process of enormous demographic engineering is occurring in Syria and there is little political will to stop it.

Global higher education then must play an effective role in lessening its attendant human suffering and do so in a way that will buttress fragile democracies and prevent the further erosion of the liberal consensus.


Let me now return to an idea I proposed at the outset: global higher education must accept a broad social, political and cultural mandate in frontline states and states of further resettlement and; and make the argument for the human right to education while also defending human rights-solutions to the challenges of migration and refugees. This is a grand undertaking, but let me just highlight two possible initiatives that would help us fulfill that mandate.

First: I argue for the establish an international network of institutions, foundations, scholars and professionals, especially in the arts, humanities, and social sciences to provide a space and intellectual home for the displaced and refugee peoples of the modern Syrian diaspora that will help that diaspora build resilient cultures and establish pathways of inclusion in democratic societies.

The enormity of the emerging Syrian diaspora, and the incredible brutality which created it, presents new challenges to host societies and their institutions of higher learning which do not have the capacity or mechanisms to provide needed psycho-social support, professional development and access to the arts, historical writing, and political action. The arts, humanities and social sciences – and the disciplines’ institutions– can help culture serve as tool for resilience and vitality in exile, especially for young people. The support of the humanities writ-large will prevent the loss of the diaspora’s culture, history and arts, and instead help form the broad outlines of a communities that can work to reduce suffering and empower them to engage in the difficult process of inclusion from a position of confidence and relative ethical strength. Moreover, the humanities are a tool that must be employed to help resist radicalization and will form a basis for exchange, dialogue and respect between newcomers and the communities where they will settle — societies which view them with distrust and fear and often as a people without culture, history or art. Among the most exemplary achievements in this field is the work of my colleague Stefan Weber, Director of the Islamic Art Museum at Berlin’s Pergamum Museum, who had employed refugee Syrian refugees as docents, interpreting art and archeology for German visitors.

This effort must follow the geographies of exile. At its core should be the establishment of new networks, using existing resources and institutes, and the identification of frameworks to connect and support the main centers where the diaspora is forming: Amman, Beirut, Erbil, Yerevan, Istanbul; Athens, Berlin, Stockholm; Dearborn, Toronto, Sao Paolo, and Sacramento.

Among the most immediate areas of implementation:

  • Foster spaces of refuge to support arts, literature and historical research within existing and prestigious institutions – not within “ghettoized space” or “universities in exile.”
  • Multi-generational investment in humanities education for diasporic young people in the form of undergraduate scholarships, graduate training, post-doctoral opportunities and sponsored professorships.
  • Seed collaborative research amongst university professionals and diaspora scholars and students in the fields of Human Rights, refugee, diaspora and democratization studies.

Many elements of this idea are already well-underway.

Second: is finding ways to empower refugee students themselves and at the same time building capacity in front-line states — the close-by diaspora — that also works to ensure and improve the educational opportunities for all. To meet a part of that need, we have developed a human rights tool that blends digital technology and face-to-face counseling to help refugees and other kinds of vulnerable students store and safely share documents with universities and employers and even provides them with a chance to have credentials translated and course equivalencies determined. We call it the Article 26 Backpack ™ and we have received a major grant from the Ford Foundation to pursue this work and we plan to implement it during the next school year.

One of the Backpack’s™ greatest strengths is helping us move beyond an exclusive reliance on traditional documentary methods to capture and share a person’s educational accomplishments.

As we seek to empower refugee and vulnerable young people to reenter higher education or the workforce, we must help them demonstrate who they are as complex people, and who they have continued to become in exile or displacement. This Fall, we will be testing the tool with refugee students and local vulnerable populations in Beirut and Jordan. I am confident that with this tool in hand, refugee students will have a better chance of resuming their education.

The Backpack ™ is, of course, the universal symbol of the student. Article 26 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes education for all as a basic Human Right. With equality and the Right to Work, the Right to Education – which I also see as the right to teach, the right to learn and the right to have that learning recognized — must stand at the center of global efforts. Any reform of the global refugee system that fails to embrace those rights will set in motion a process of human rights erosion that will affect all of us.

When I would sit with young Syrians in tents, bookstores, cafes, abandoned train stations or classrooms and listen to them across a table as they described studying engineering so they could restore Homs, doing course work in neonatology to help restore Aleppo’s devastated health care system, or become a journalist to replace with the truth of their experience the lies they’d been told their entire lives, I would see in them immense hope and human potential, but I also saw in them what I see in my own students, our future and that of my own children.

And it was in moments like these when I would grasp the full measure the loss to humanity that is this “Lost Generation.”

©UC Davis Human Rights Studies Program and Regents University of California