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Queen Mary consolidates support to academics affected by the Syrian crisis

28 February 2019

Queen Mary University of London is offering support to Syrian academics in exile in Turkey, as part of a programme designed to equip them with the skills needed to rebuild Syria’s higher education and research sectors.

Queen Mary is among a number of British universities engaged in the Syria Programme launched by the Council for At Risk Academics (Cara) in 2016.

As the regionally-based programme continues to grow, Queen Mary is bolstering its engagement and increasing its support to facilitate workshops in Istanbul and research opportunities for Syrian participants. In February, Queen Mary hosted a meeting of the Cara Syria Programme steering group, bringing together colleagues from UK universities who are involved in supporting this innovative project.

An innovative response to support Syrian academics in exile

Coming from a wide range of disciplines and with an impressive wealth of experience to share, Syrian participants are building their academic and professional profiles, and connecting with UK-based academics who are interested in research relevant to Syria or Syrian populations in exile.

Cara is planning to expand the Syria programme in 2019 and 2020 with more research funding and publication opportunities, including new grants to support promising arts and humanities pilot projects. Participants are also working in special interest groups on a number of areas that are seen as essential to the future reconstruction of Syria, such as energy security, food security, and cultural heritage.  

Building academic and English language skills

An important aspect of the programme involves online sessions and face-to-face workshops to enhance participants’ understanding of international standards in research and teaching, as well as improve English language skills to facilitate international connections.

More volunteers from Queen Mary’s Language Centre are joining this initiative: eight Queen Mary volunteers have now been paired with Syrian academics who are in exile in Turkey to teach English for Academic Purposes (EAP) through weekly online language lessons. The Syrian participants also attend regular face-to-face workshops in Istanbul staffed by volunteers from across the UK higher education sector.

Razan Al Taha is one of the Syrian participants living in Southeastern Turkey and pursuing business-related research in quality management. She finds her weekly online sessions a rewarding learning opportunity: “It helps me to communicate with my teacher in an easy and enjoyable way and open the discussion without barriers. […] Internet classes fit my lifestyle, allowing me to take additional classes that would not have fit into my schedule otherwise.”

Volunteers at Queen Mary are finding their weekly sessions an equally enriching experience. Debra Hills, a teaching fellow at Queen Mary’s Language Centre, comments that: “Lessons pass by in a flash as my student is so motivated and so genuinely interesting […] My student, although displaced from his country, remains positive and open-minded. These qualities are infectious and our lessons always put me in a better mood.”

James Taylor, also a teaching fellow at Queen Mary, recently started teaching a Syrian participant in January 2019. He said that: “It is a pleasure to work with someone who is unable to access an English-speaking learning environment, or practise with native speakers, which he wishes to do. This platform partly solves that and I would encourage any education practitioner, who has an hour or two each week, to help with this very worthwhile programme.”

New opportunities to conduct research relevant to Syria

As Cara’s programme enters its third year, more research opportunities will enable Syrian academics to further develop their academic profile and connect with other experts in their field. Participants are encouraged to apply for grants to support research on issues of relevance to Syria or Syrian populations in exile.

Since May 2017, Dr Fuad Alhaj Omar, an electrical engineer who is completing a second PhD at Seljuk University in Turkey, has been working with Will Hutton, from Queen Mary’s Language Centre, to improve his English language skills. He recently received a small research grant from Cara to examine how to make solar panels more efficient in cloudy conditions.  Dr Joe Briscoe at Queen Mary’s School of Engineering and Materials Science has been working with him as one of his mentors. Cara will be supporting Dr Alhaj Omar in future workshops to produce an article in English using the data he gathered as part of this research.

Through continued academic development and collaboration, these opportunities are a lifeline for many Syrian academics who want to grow professionally, with the hope that one day they will return to Syria to revive the country’s higher education sector.