Making a difference in an environment like Syria is not an easy task. Decades of authoritarian rule have quashed civic life and discouraged young Syrians from aspiring to leadership in their society. On top of that repressive history are now four years of brutal war.
You hear the numbers. Over 200,000 killed. 3.2 million refugees. 6.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). An economy that will require at least a decade of reconstruction. You hear the horror stories. The regime drops barrel bombs on densely populated civilian areas. Dissidents are tortured as they languish in jail. Women are forced into sexual slavery by extremist fighters. Children cannot attend school because their classrooms are destroyed or they must find work in order to help feed their family.
To win back a generation at risk of being lost to this war, CIPE is working with its partner the Syrian Economic Forum (SEF) to create new educational paradigm for Syria. With private sector leadership and solutions, SEF is running a CIPE-supported course for recent Syrian high school graduates who have been displaced by the conflict in the border town of Kilis, Turkey (now home to more Syrians than Turks). The course provides an immersion in entrepreneurship, leadership, and civic skills and is being considered for broader application by authorities in the moderate opposition.
Under the Assad regime, students did not study civics. Rather, they took a course called qaumiyya (nationalism). Students began the day in the courtyard, saluting the Syrian and Ba’athist flags and chanting, “Long Live Assad, Long Live Ba’ath!” Exam questions required memorizing quotes by Bashar Al-Assad and his father Hafez.
The new civics education curriculum developed by CIPE and SEF prepares students to actively engage in their society and gives them skills they can use to rebuild their country and create institutional change in the future. It’s no wonder that the program is already being looked at by opposition leaders as a possible model that can be expanded to help a wider population of Syrians.
“Syria Needs Us”: A Day in the Classroom
My colleague Stephen Rosenlund and I recently traveled to southern Turkey, where we met with a number of Syrians affected by the conflict.
“What amazed me was that my own country’s army burned my village, while this foreign army saluted me,” said a former professor from a prominent university in northern Syria. After the uprising began, the regime burned down 300 houses in his village, including his own. He could no longer serve a regime that turned on the people it was supposed to protect, so he took his wife and four children and crossed a mountain into Turkey. As he crossed the border, he told a Turkish soldier that he was a professor, and the soldier saluted him.
The professor currently lives in Kilis. No longer able to work at a university, he found a new way to teach. On weekends, he goes to a classroom on the second story of a building in the Old City to teach recent Syrian high school graduates in Kilis about entrepreneurship and civic engagement as part of the course hosted by CIPE and SEF. Through this civic education program, SEF and its team of Syrian professors will teach 600 young Syrians concepts such as conflict resolution, effective communication, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, time management, and business planning by the end of this spring.
While in Kilis, my colleague and I also met with a group of students who had just begun the course. When we asked them why they wanted to take the course, the students were quick to answer: “To learn the way to build a better Syria.” “It is our duty to play an effective role in society.” “Syria needs us.”
In the conflict resolution class, students mapped out the challenges they were facing in the Kilis camps: few opportunities for work and higher education; overcrowding; no right to have visitors; lack of water. They strategized about ways to solve these problems by working with camp authorities.
In the class on business planning, students brainstormed small projects they could start inside the camp in order to make a living. They came up with concepts ranging from a bakery to alternative energy generation to a robot that teaches children colors and shapes. The professor walked them through analyzing the costs involved with starting various projects, and they discussed methods of raising capital.
“We need to learn how to start projects in order to be independent,” a female student told us. Many students told us they had learned valuable new skills. “We have capabilities that we didn’t know we had,” one said. These skills will allow the students to return to Syria as leaders in the rebuilding of their country.
We met with Mohammad, Amr, and Tarek, who recently graduated from the course. They wanted to show us a project they invented as a result of the course. It was a basket that can climb stairs to help people carry heavy items. Mohammad told us that it can help elderly people or people with heart diseases, like him, to carry heavy goods.
When they have enough capital, they will make the basket electronic. They hope to one day make it a commercial product. Mohammad said, “I am trying to take advantage of the golden opportunities offered to us by Turkey, by making commercial and industrial projects that in the future we can move inside Syria, to make it a pioneer as an industrial country.” Amr told us that the course had benefitted them greatly. “When we go back to Syria, the situation will be so bad, so we will be able to help.”
By vesting young Syrians with the tools needed to realize an ownership stake in their society, the program delivers on CIPE’s mission and core objectives. Young Syrians desperately need the opportunities that this type of education provides in order to encourage their entrepreneurial ambitions, deepen their understanding of market economics, and increase support for the fundamental rights, freedoms, and responsibilities essential to democratic development. Beyond imparting tangible skills the students can use to improve their current living situation, the course empowers young Syrians to engage constructively in the country’s transformation and contribute to a more democratic future. “Before, I had stopped planning for the future,” a student told me, “But after the first session of the course, I want to have a future.
Peako Jenkins is a Program Assistant for the Middle East & North Africa at CIPE.