Between shelling and displacement, Syrian students seek degrees online

Aleppo resident and University of the People student Mariam Hammad, 23, poses for a photo in Aleppo, Syria, on Jan. 27, 2017 (Courtesy Mariam Hammad)

By Sebastian Malo

NEW YORK, June 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Aleppo resident Mariam Hammad’s internet connection went bust last October, her chest tightened with worry that she may not be able to continue her studies.

The week-long internet blackout in the Syrian city meant she could neither take her online university exams nor reach her professors to explain why.

“I was just crying, all the time,” she said. “After two months of hard work and studying, I simply couldn’t do my final exams, what could I do?”

Panicked, the 23-year-old phoned a relative in Damascus who, also without internet, called another one – a refugee in Germany, who in turn emailed the U.S. university to plead for deferring her exams.

The school, University of the People, agreed.

Hammad is one of hundreds of Syrian students who are going to great lengths, amid shelling, hunger and brushes with death, to keep up with their university studies and earn their degrees from online schools abroad.

Syria had a thriving higher education system before its civil war broke out, with about a fifth of people between 18 and 24 years enrolled in higher education.

But the conflict – now in its seventh year – has forced an estimated 200,000 Syrians to give up their studies, according to the New York-based charity Institute of International Education (IIE).

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LIFELINE FOR STUDENTS

For many, a handful of easily accessible, virtual schools that offer accredited diplomas and tuition for free have become an educational lifeline.

University of the People, headquartered in California, offers 4-year bachelor degrees completely taught online with the help of volunteer academics and retired university staff.

It has more than 200 students in Syria, and counts among its student body another 300 Syrians who have fled to safety abroad, according to the school.

Similarly, the Berlin-based Kiron Open Higher Education and Amity University, in India, each offer free online courses to hundreds of Syrian refugees.

For Hammad, it was during an adrenaline-fueled, end-of-semester exam rush in 2013, that conventional schooling came to an abrupt end.

Then a first-year finance student at Aleppo University, the bright-eyed woman was sitting an exam alongside her young peers when two explosions rocked the campus, killing more than 80 people and wounding some 160.

“I can’t forget until now how many students died in front of my eyes,” she said in a Skype interview. “Their blood, their eyes, many students lost their arms, their legs.”

From that moment, her local university, along with Hammad’s professional aspirations, was off limits.

Now Hammad studies most nights by candlelight on her smartphone – she has no laptop – towards a bachelor’s degree in business and administration.

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Her mobile internet connection is painfully slow, she said, but sufficient to load her weekly readings – a welcome distraction.

“When I study, I feel like I’m out of the war,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Violence in Aleppo has receded since government forces have retaken the city from rebels last December.

But humanitarian organizations have expressed shock at the extent of the destruction to infrastructure and homes alike.

The magnitude of the tragedy only hit Hammad recently.

While researching a paper on globalization, she stumbled upon a U.N. website describing the Syrian crisis as being at the center of the worst refugee exodus since World War Two.

It is a comparison widely made in the Western media, but the first time Hammad, a victim of that war, had heard about it, she said.

That night, after writing down her homework on paper with a pencil, then transcribing it on her smartphone to send her professors, Hammad sobbed.

“It’s terrible, terrible,” she recalls telling her parents. “What is happening here is like a dream, a bad dream.”

(Credit: Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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