Lebanese Students in Homs: Leaving School is the Last Resort

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A handout picture made available by the General Committee of the Syrian Revolution shows a destroyed vehicle along a street in the Inshaat district of Homs on 7 March 2012. Lebanese students studying in Syria, especially in Homs, are still waiting for a resolution to know their educational fate. (Photo: AFP PHOTO - HO - GENERAL COMMITTTEE OF THE SYRIAN REVOLUTION)

By: Rajana Hamyeh

Published Friday, March 16, 2012

Many Lebanese students enrolled in Homs Universities are now wondering if and when they will be able to pursue their studies again.

About one month ago, Lebanese student Hussein Dirani packed his things and returned home, leaving behind the five years that he spent at the Baath University in Homs. The fate of his sixth year will be determined by the battles over this Syrian city.

He did not intend to leave, but a “deliberate” sniper bullet forced him and his two flatmates to use the last weapon that Lebanese and foreign students possess – returning home.

Prior to the bullet, Dirani explains, anything “could be handled,” or at best, was “precisely calculated,” such as when it was time to sleep or close the windows.

Mornings in Akrama neighborhood, where Dirani and most foreign students used to reside, were based on what was happening in the area.

During the truce period that lasted between “8:00am and noon,” everybody – students, shoppers, and even people fleeing – would rush outdoors.

At high noon, everything would change. Doors and windows that would previously be left open for sunlight were closed...and the war would begin. This period, according to Dirani, which would last until the evening, was dedicated to “heavy weapons,” such as RPGs and mortar shells.

In the evening, fighters would take a break, and the shooting would become irregular and intermittent, before it regained momentum at night...and so on, day after day.

Sometimes, the timing of the clashes would change, and city residents would wake up to the sound of gunfire. In this case, students would no longer be able to plan their day.

Attending school on such a day would depend on “how many are attending class,” says Dirani. Students contacted each other to find out about class on such days and usually opted for staying home.

But even this option was not free of risk after the fighting closed in on the Akrama neighborhood.

Even the periods of truce, which the students hear about today, have not encouraged them to return.

Another student, Ali Khatib, says that they had fled the Syrian city in earlier periods without any luggage or books for fear of “sudden inspection campaigns.”

Khatib never thought about leaving Homs prior to January because “the situation at checkpoints was not very worrying...cab drivers are residents of the area and therefore possessed some leverage with the armed groups.”

But then he left in haste after hearing reports from another Lebanese student there that “armed groups at flying checkpoints are kidnapping passers-by wherever they may be from.”

At this point Khatib made the decision to return home to Lebanon.

He is now waiting, like other students, until the situation calms down in Homs, banking on the Syrian Ministry of Higher Education’s decision to postpone exams in Homs. But who will notify foreign students of the new date? How will the crisis of Lebanese students’ absence from the university be solved?

Certainly, everything depends on the security forces ability to retake the city, the students say.

Even then, the student have many questions: Will our university year be wasted? Will we sit for our exams? Will we graduate? There are no answers so far.

The students direct their questions to political parties in Lebanon, given that most Lebanese students who study in Syria are affiliated with one party or another.

Head of educational affairs in Hezbollah, Youssef Merhi, says “some students...in an individual manner” have inquired about returning to their studies.

“We have contacted those in charge in Syria. However, they did not promise us anything. We will try to find a solution to the situation when calm is restored,” he adds.

Other party officials share Merhi’s views. However, that does not stop them from searching for solutions at Lebanese universities.

But they must contend with two problems: the first is the inability of students to enroll in another educational system that mostly depends on a foreign language, and the second is that Lebanese universities demand that they deal with those students independently of their political representatives.

For instance, Merhi explains that “some Lebanese University faculties require an entrance exam for students, in accordance with the law.”

What is more difficult is for students to attend courses in a foreign language, because the Syrian curriculum is exclusively taught in Arabic.

But, “some faculties may allow some flexibility,” says Hassan Zeineddine from the Amal movement, adding that “our students in areas of tension were transferred to Damascus through our office there.”

But that may have taken place prior to the Ministry of Higher Education’s decision to ban such transfers.

The head of education and youth at the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP), Sobhi Yaghi, is counting on the Syrian army to resolve the situation quickly.

“The Ministry of Higher Education has made a decision to conduct exams for students at Damascus universities,” he says.

As for the return to Homs, it depends on those fighting in its neighborhoods.


“Interns” in Damascus

Not all students enrolled in the Baath University in Aleppo made the decision to return from Syria.

The journey of the sixth-year – which is the final year – medical students was different from the others.

Instead of heading to Lebanon, they went to Damascus “because the university allowed sixth-year students to continue their training in Damascus,” says student Ahmad Mismar.

However, other medical students in their fifth year or lower have not been able to complete their studies in Damascus thus far, because The Ministry of Higher Education authorized transfers for sixth-year students only.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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