Beirut, Lebanon – When Walid Ikhlassi left his home in the Syrian city of Aleppo in 2010 to attend university in Lebanon, his future appeared far more certain. He would complete his degree in architecture at Balamand University, located near the northern city of Tripoli, and return to Aleppo to work in his father’s civil engineering company.
“I already had an office there and everything,” Ikhlassi told Al Jazeera. “My future was planned.”
Four years later, his entire family has left Syria due to the civil war, and his father’s company no longer exists. As for Ikhlassi, “I [no longer] know what is going to happen next year.”
Ikhlassi’s case is not isolated. According to statistics published by the University of California Davis and the Institute of International Education, more than 6,000 Syrians were enrolled in Lebanese University, the country’s largest university, in the 2010-2011 school year.Thousands more attended Lebanon’s 43 other universities.
When these students left their homes in 2010, the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad had not yet begun – but the ensuing civil war, which has displaced more than 9 million people and killed nearly 200,000, has shaped the course of their educational experiences and futures.
Mamoun Mahayni, a student at the American University of Beirut (AUB) from Damascus, remembers his first semester revolving around normal university activities: making new friends, attending classes and getting used to life away from home. “There was nothing out the ordinary,” he told Al Jazeera.
As the uprising started, however, Syrian communities on Lebanese campuses fractured into rival groups. At Balamand, students launched opposing campus organisations, Ikhlassi said, and many now wear wristbands with the regime or opposition flag, depending on their affiliation.
In addition, with the transition from uprising to civil war, the Syrian economy collapsed, making it difficult for many to continue to afford tuition in Lebanon’s universities. Syrians, including students, also faced growing discrimination as more refugees entered Lebanon.
In certain areas of Beirut, Mahayni said, self-proclaimed neighbourhood watchmen have set up night patrols to impose unofficial curfews on Syrians. “I’ve gone to several of these areas, and I’ve been stopped,” he said.
I have no idea where to apply for jobs… where to go or if I can stay in Lebanon… Should I leave, what country would take me?
Syrian students have also faced difficulty along Lebanon’s borders, which are now being more tightly controlled.
Majd Nassan, also an AUB student, recently travelled to Damascus to visit his family. On the way back, he was forced to wait in the scorching heat at the border for more than six hours with hundreds of other Syrians. When he approached Lebanese border security to ask about the delay, he says he was treated as if “I was no longer a human being”.
Yara Qtaish, a student at Lebanese University from Suwayda, said Lebanese state security officials had been holding her passport for 10 months while processing her application to extend her residency permit. They gave her a temporary ID, but until she receives her passport, she cannot leave Lebanon.
“I’m waiting [to]… go back to Syria to see my dad because I haven’t seen him in… two-and-a-half years,” she said. “I’m basically stuck.”
Renewing Syrian passports, which expire every six years, can be dangerous in some cases. Mahayni, a critic of the Assad regime, is reluctant to go the Syrian embassy to renew his passport for fear that he might be questioned.
“Part of my family has been persecuted and murdered by the regime,” he said. “I’m kind of outspoken on the issue, so I could be targeted.”
Syria’s mandatory military conscription for men over 18 is another major factor preventing many soon-to-be graduates from returning home. Nassan, who graduates in December, said he might be able to go home one more time before his deferment expires. “I don’t think I can go after that,” he said, noting he cannot afford the hefty fee to waive his service.
Many Western countries also remain closed to Syrians stranded by the conflict. The United States has only resettled 121 Syrian refugees since 2011. “You can’t move to Europe because the Europeans won’t let anyone in. You can’t go to the States or Canada or any country where you can make a decent living,” Mahayni said. “These countries have better economies, better infrastructure and they closed their doors to us.”
The fact that there is no future back home has added to Syrian students’ anxiety. Lebanon, with its strained economy, political instability and growing frustration towards Syrians, is not a viable alternative for many. Consequently, these students find themselves in a state of limbo.
“I chose to come here in 2010,” Diala Mansour, an AUB student, told Al Jazeera. “[But] I can’t go home. I have no idea where to apply for jobs… where to go or if I can stay in Lebanon… Should I leave, what country would take me?”
|Syrians say Lebanon blocking escape|
For her part, Diana Salahieh, another AUB student from Aleppo, used to think she would work abroad for several years before returning to Syria. “Syria, for me… was probably in 10 years,” she explained. “Now, that 10-year plan is probably a 50-year plan.”
Some, however, have found purpose in the tragedies of the war. After taking the spring semester off in 2012 and returning to Damascus, Nassan switched his major from computer science to political studies with a concentration in conflict resolution.
“I live in old Damascus and… thinking deep inside that at one point this might get destroyed… I couldn’t accept that thought,” he explained.
Nassan plans to pursue a master’s degree in conflict resolution and then return to Syria, when he has the qualifications and experience to help. “I was a lost soul when I started university,” Nassan said. “Now, my goal is to try to help the people of Syria.”
All of the students interviewed shared his desire to seek further education and professional experience abroad, calling it their only viable option. Many also want to return to Syria when they have an opportunity to contribute to the post-war reconstruction.
Ikhlassi, however – who had never considered a future outside of Syria before – now cannot imagine building a life there. “There’s a future for maybe the next generation, but not ours,” he said.
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