Students everywhere are special people and this observer has discovered that Syrian students are among the very best.
Meeting and interviewing students again this past week, before and following, a frank and enlightening discussion with Dr. Mohammad Amer Al-Mardini, the indefatigable President of Damascus University, about the situation of the students and current instruction at the University, one cannot ,even as a foreigner, fail to feel pride in Syrian students.
Good meeting places, among others on campus, include “outdoor cafes” – a ‘street student union’ of sorts- consisting of a few chairs and portable tables. They are scattered among the dozens of vendor stalls that line “DU Boulevard” outside the main DU campus in central Damascus. Here students can buy everything from school supplies to mobile phones, to snacks, and it’s a perfect place to meet and chat with students.
One learns from them about the many effects on the education system in Syria of the US-led sanctions. Some argue that the Obama administration actually fuels the current crisis with its sanctions and achieves the opposite result of what the White House and its allies claim they are seeking. These freewheeling discussions leave a foreigner with a reminder why this university and its student body ranks among the best in the World.
More than 200,000 full-time and ‘open-learning’ students at Damascus University, the 6th largest in the World and founded in 1901, are feeling some effects of the harsh Obama Administration’s civilian targeting sanctions. Iran’s millions of students are also increasingly in the cross-hairs of the “humanitarian sanctions which Washington and Brussels claim “exempt food, medicines and medical supplies” and therefore “should be considered humane.”
Among DU Faculties most severely affected by the US-led sanctions are the Science Departments and the Medical and Nursing schools according to administration and student sources. Chemicals used in various science classes, medicines and medical equipment cannot be found as before and if some are brought in from Europe or elsewhere, the University often has to pay four times the normal price.
Utah’s Brigham Young University gained the respect and appreciation of many in Syria for its shipments to DU’s nursing school of medicines and equipment and even “model doll babies” which in Syria use in baby care classes. All are now banned by the US sanctions which claim to exempt medical equipment and medicines.
Damascus University, with its 43 specialized faculties is no banking-hours institution and its proven commitment is to give the highest quality education to as many students as possible. Syria’s largest university, it is now open for classes 365 days a year minus a few holidays—partly due to increased number of students arriving from across Syria, as the Administration and faculty work with colleges in war zones to guarantee students can continue their studies without missing key exams required for semester advancement. Still, about 18% of college level students are unable to attend due to transportation and displacement problems.
One direct and predictable severe impact of the US-led civilian targeting sanctions in Syria is that the sanctions have essentially stranded approximately 700 Syrian students in Europe and half a dozen in the US, forcing some to drop out and find a job to survive. This is because, as well known among the US Treasury Department “craftsmen” who devise the sanctions, these students are no longer able to receive funds to pay for their foreign tuition or living expenses because the banking system has been essentially shut down.
If families can scrape together some money for their children studying abroad and do manage to send it via Western Union, for example, a new “sanctions surcharge” of 7 euros for every 1,000 euros sent, is demanded by WU and other money transfer agencies, suggesting another form of war profiteering. To make things even more difficult for the students, foreign Universities who might consider lending their stranded Syrian students tuition money or might even consider aiding them with scholarships or a grant have been “chilled” and are backing-off because these institutions do not want to be accused of ‘sanction-busting’ by the US Treasury hound dogs.
Few food or medicine suppliers, given the sanction regulations language and uncertain legal meanings-even for their lawyers, some of whom have declared that the language is incomprehensible, want to risk the wrath of the US Treasury Department and be slapped with severe penalties including, but not limited to, very expensive fines by dealing with anyone in Syria concerning food and medicine.
One of the US Treasury ‘hound dogs’ noted above, is David Cohen, Under -Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. Mr. Cohen made a trip to the region late last month to brief allies and businesses as well as NGO’s, including discussions in Israel, “to be sure the sanctions were biting hard” to use a favorite phase of UN Ambassador Susan Rice. The Obama administration, reportedly frustrated by the fact that its multi-tiered sanctions have failed to topple the governments of Syria and Iran, has been attempting to find and plug sanction loopholes and are intensifying warnings to the international community, in no uncertain terms, not to mess with the US Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence (TFI) or the Office of Financial Assets Control (OFAC) by getting all wobbly-kneed and going soft on full sanction and complete enforcement.
Meanwhile, Syria’s Department of Education is joining the struggle to shield Syria’s education institutions and is being joined by various student associations. To date, the Ministry has not cut its substantial disbursements to colleges. Tuition remains among the lowest in the world at Damascus University, which also provides housing for 15,000 students. The DU administration is currently under pressure to find more dormitory space for those needing housing. Still, despite the conflict, even in Deraa near the Jordanian border where the current crisis started, DU’s campus continues to function.
Many DU students are also volunteering with assisting Syrian primary schools which urgently need their help. According to a December 2012 UNICEF education assessment of primary schools in Syria– at least 2,400 schools have been damaged or destroyed, including 772 in Idlib (50 per cent of the total), 300 in Aleppo and another 300 in Deraa. Over 1,500 schools are being used as shelters for displaced persons. The Damascus University community has also taken on the humanitarian challenge of assisting sister educational institutions that have been affected by the current crisis including campuses in Homs and Aleppo, among others. This observer has met several Damascus University students among the 9,000 volunteers, including Palestinian refugees, who are donating their time working with the Syria Red Crescent Society (SARCS). Many DU students are also volunteering with assisting primary schools.
The grim reality of Syrian families, hospitals and health care facilities across the country, and now its Universities, students and educational institutions, experiencing the claimed “humanitarian sanctions” which emphasize” exemptions for food, medicine and medical equipment exemptions, once again exposes Obama administration claimed humanitarian values to ridicule here and around the world.
Rather than target Syria’s future leaders, the White House would do well to cancel its student targeting sanctions and send Secretary Kerrey to Damascus to meet face-to-face with the Syrian people and government and demonstrate a real American interest in stopping the bloodshed. Armored vehicles and assorted “non-lethal aid” to one side in this conflict will only prolong the killing, as any student here will attest.
Franklin Lamb is doing research in Syria and can be reached c/o firstname.lastname@example.org