Spare a thought for Syrian youths this graduation season
It is graduation season. Summer is upon us, and universities around the world are sparing no effort in putting together graduation ceremonies that are elaborate and inspiring at the same time. Students are applauded for their ambition, congratulated for their achievement, rewarded for their hard work, and promised new opportunities. Now they are graduates: Officially recognized as having taken one more step toward many hoped-for successes in life and a brighter future. Parents, in most cases, are the proudest of attendants.
Graduation ceremonies stretch between early and late summer weeks depending on the country or academic system they follow. The gamut of students receiving public recognition of their success stretches wide not only in time and geography, but also in all sorts of human variety. Many universities are admitting mature students into the classroom. Professors are lauded for offering special accommodations for parents, in most cases mothers who have waited for their children to reach an age of relative independence, and fathers who increasingly practice shared parenting by dedicating part of their time to childcare while the mother keeps a foot in the door of her own profession. Once-monocolored campuses are looking increasingly like the real world, and diverse populations are slowly appearing in all classes, being less and less limited to minority or ethnic studies.
Economic background remains a sticking point, however, especially in countries that have moved rapidly toward increasing university fees in such ways that have all but excluded large swathes of the population. This has been the case for decades in the US, and is becoming a growing issue in parts of the UK, where the government moved from limited university fees to raising the tuition fee cap multiple times within the span of three decades. If the financial squeeze is affecting domestic students on a large scale, aspiring international students are carrying the brunt of more excruciating fee increases. Higher education in the English-speaking world is becoming gradually restricted by financial cost to the degree of being a near-impossible prospect for the majority of international students.
Despite these challenges, ambition knows no bounds. The first round of graduation ceremonies this year has produced a number of attention-grabbing news items about individual success stories against many odds: The first Arab student to graduate with such and such a degree, the first female national of a particular Arab nation to receive distinction from an Ivy League university, the member of a minority group who has achieved distinction despite working through economic or health hardship, etc. Behind the news clips and online social media videos, many more stories of success are surely taking place. We can only hope these accomplishments will be followed by many more in these ambitious and motivated lives.
Eight years is a very long time in any life, but it is much too long in the lives of children and youths
Among such stories of success, there is a noticeable increase in the number of Syrian students whose excellence in one domain or another attracts particular attention. In Germany, Syrian youths have now acquired sufficient linguistic agility to finish their school education with success and distinction in many cases. The relative stability of other European countries that have welcomed Syrian families is allowing children to enroll in local schools and have some form of future begin to take shape. Various universities in Turkey are admitting Syrian students and, even though the journey seems longer there for logistical reasons, success is a common story. Like many people from Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine who were displaced by conflicts in the region, the people of Syria are landing in countries familiar and unfamiliar, and are looking for ways to start a new life, often from nothing. The young, and most adaptable, start with education.
It has been more than eight years since Syrian children and youths began facing difficulties that were detrimental to normal education and all sorts of intellectual and professional development. Statistics from the UN Refugee Agency reveal that over 10 million Syrians are displaced. More than half the country’s citizens and residents have been forced to leave their homes because of the conflict. The majority of those who have been displaced remain in Syria, sharing the embattled economy’s limited resources with the few who have managed to stay put while weathering long years of conflict. Eight years is a very long time in any life, but it is much too long in the lives of children and youths. Syria was a young country before the war, with the majority of citizens being under 40 years of age. According to some calculations, the median age in 2019 is 20.5 years. Despite years of conflict, and the many young lives lost, Syrians remain a young people.
Syrians also remain the human fault line of major international tensions. Further, they are now at the heart of many national conflicts. The young continue to bear the brunt of this enduring crisis and, so long as their education is on hold, their future and the future of the entire world, which is either involved in or affected by their misfortune, are tightly knit. As we congratulate successful graduates and wish them bright futures, let us spare a thought for the many, many other deserving youths whose lives are still gripped by the crippling effects of grown-up fights. Keeping the vast majority of Syrian youths on the margins of academic and professional education is one of the biggest mistakes of our generation.
- Tala Jarjour is author of “Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo” (OUP, 2018). She is currently Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London and Associate Fellow of Pierson College at Yale.