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This post originally appeared at Reuters AlertNet.
The fall semester is well underway back in the United States. Students are breathing in the smell of freshly sharpened pencils, carrying backpacks across leafy college campuses, making new friends, and feeling nervous and excited at the prospect of raising their hand and expressing newly-formed opinions.
Syrian students, though, are experiencing something different altogether. This week, I met Yousef, a 22-year-old student. Last fall, he registered at Aleppo University in the hope of continuing his mechanical engineering studies. On the first day of classes, instead of being greeted with book lists and a syllabus, Yousef entered the main university building to find it full of soldiers.
Bashar al-Assad’s regime fears the power of students, Yousef explained to me, and as such, controls the university with an iron grip. Throughout the semester, soldiers were a constant presence in the university, interrupting classes regularly and randomly to beat professors and students. Several of his friends were hospitalized after suffering such beatings. Fearing for his safety, Yousef rarely attended his classes, missed his exams, and failed his courses.
It is incredibly difficult to be a young person in Aleppo today. Yousef could not walk down the street with headphones in his ears, for fear that a soldier would order him to stop and he, unable to hear the order, would be shot and killed. He could not be seen in public together with his friends, since groups of young people are automatically suspected of being opposition agitators. Yousef described the way soldiers would shoot Syrian civilians as if they were playing a video game – recklessly killing men, women, and children without a thought.
When the situation in Aleppo became too dangerous, Yousef and his brother traveled to Turkey where they searched for a house for their family, who followed one month later. Turkey provides temporary protection for Syrian refugees, and more than 87,000 live in camps managed by the Turkish government. Yousef and his family are part of the rapidly growing urban refugee population living in the country. These are Syrians with some economic means, and they mostly live in rented apartments. But that does not mean their situation is an easy one. Syrians generally do not speak Turkish, so it is tough to navigate the cities where they now live. Jobs are also hard to come by, and it is unclear how long their savings will sustain them. In some places, Syrians face discrimination from their host communities, which are increasingly saturated with refugees. But perhaps hardest of all is the feeling of deep anxiety; the fact that no one knows when the crisis in Syria will end or when they will return home.
Yousef is lucky because he was able to win a scholarship to a Turkish university where classes are taught in English. A former professor’s recommendation and his excellent undergraduate grades gained him admission. But in order to attend, he had to leave his family and come to a new city where he did not know a soul. To secure a student visa, he must first find accommodation. On the day he met with us, Yousef had visited 12 apartments, and at each one the landlord turned him away after seeing his Syrian passport. He has already missed the first two weeks of classes and is tired and discouraged, haunted by his memories from Aleppo and the images he sees in the news of his hometown burning.
Last year, back at his university in Aleppo, Yousef made a poster with his friends that read, “Assad, get out of Syria. We want to follow our dreams and rebuild our country.” Soldiers later ripped up the poster, but this hope is still alive for Yousef. Despite the uncertainty of his life here, and the devastation of his home, Yousef still wants to follow his own dream: to go to school, support his family, and return to the home he once knew. “It is my human right,” he says, “isn’t it?”October 18, 2012 | Tagged as: Syria, Turkey, Humanitarian Response, Middle East, Women & Children