A Beacon of Humanity
It is not easy to build a university from the ground up, but this is precisely what Dr Izdin Elkadour, and other Syrian academics, did in 2015, when faced with no alternative but to oppose Assad’s takeover of the national universities. As a result, Al Sham University is now a small-fledged institution, not yet a decade old, situated in the northwest corner of Syria. It has become a lifeline to people living in the increasingly precarious and isolated areas outside Assad’s control. Operating in an environment riven by conflicts. The former rector of Al Sham and its current Vice-Rector of Academic Affairs, Dr Izdin has navigated takeovers by armed groups, ideological detractors, aerial bombardments, a slow but steady encroachment of governmental control, a lack of international recognition and support, but perhaps the biggest challenge yet has been the impact of the recent earthquakes that hit Turkey and northern/northwest Syria on the 6th February 2023. Particularly galling were the days of aerial bombardment by the Syrian air force that followed the earthquakes. Given their vulnerability on the ground, the international community’s near abandonment of them, because of Russia’s arbitrary veto of border crossings causing delays for urgently needed assistance, has left people floored by the immorality and illegality of the situation.
Elkadour received his political education over the past 25 years. As a legal theorist and international relations scholar, he has written about Syrian foreign policy during the Gulf crisis, the legal dimensions of the war on Iraq, Libya and the devastation of civil society in Syria, most notably in higher education. In his career, he has seen many instances of failed diplomacy, murderous inaction by the United Nations and the slow death of an international community. His thoughts on realpolitik are straightforward. “What is happening in Syria is entirely in the hands of world powers, Russia and Iran have their own agenda. Different regional powers have their agendas. I can never tell what will happen. Will we remain a unified country, whether Syria will be divided or whether the regime will be supported, and will the dictatorship continue? The future of is out of Syrian control.”
However, his disillusionment with international relations is far from total. When it comes to the all-consuming work on the ground, he strives for shared vision and partnership. Building a university that will serve its unique community’s needs so that it can stand as a beacon of excellence for the hopes and dreams of the Syrian people, and as a corrective to the past. Al Sham is a community of returning academics and internally displaced students rebuilding lives, innovating without resources, starting businesses, and fighting for an education. It is led by returning academics who fought for self-determination and have a vision of where they want to go next. This is how universities rooted in free thinking begin.I am reminded of a line of Abdellatif Laabi’s poems. “Will we realise some day that the real centre is in the margin?”
Originally from Idlib, Elkadour grew up in Aleppo, living in Lebanon briefly. He lived for over eleven years in North Africa, which he loved, meeting students from across Africa and the Middle East, completing all his studies at Muhammad V University, Agdal, Morocco, where he witnessed the Arab Spring. “During the early days, I participated in protests against the Syrian regime. After that I became involved in supporting the local structures, in developing alternative governance structures in liberated areas. Then I moved to focus on the Higher Education sector.”
He joined a group of activist academics who were setting up a university in what was then known as the liberated areas of northwest Syria, in order to provide access to higher education for people who had been left out of the equation. “Back when we started preparing to launch International Sham University in 2015, there were only two universities in the northwest at the time: one in Idlib and one in Aleppo City. There were no universities in the suburbs north of Aleppo, and people had to travel to get an education. So, we were practically the first university in the area. When we first opened, only a few faculties were available: Political Science, Engineering (mechatronics, chemical engineering, informatics and civil), and the Faculty of Sharia & Law. Since then, the university has gradually expanded. Now we have a Faculty of Education with two departments, we have opened a new department in the Faculty of Engineering and a new Faculty of Health Sciences, which includes nursing, emergency medicine, physiotherapy and anaesthesia.”
The University serves over 2100 students: “Some of them are older high school graduates from regime-controlled areas, and others, especially when we first opened the University, were older. Because we opened five years after the start of the war, many students had been unable to continue their education, living in areas without access, which is why they were older.” “Our first academic year was 2016-2017, and in 2020, we celebrated our first graduates.”
Remarkably, the university has gained a good reputation in the community in a relatively short time. Elkadour believes it is due to the dedication of all who have been involved and the underpinning of their idealism with quality provision, and the introduction of quality-related policies and practices to create a modern and professional institution. “We developed modules and programmes based on our analysis of programmes in neighbouring countries, including Turkey and other Arab countries in the region, as well as adopting of European criteria, specifically the credit hour system.” He explains, “We were keen to ensure that these criteria were implemented in the best way possible. This applies to teaching and assessment. This is why I believe that Al Sham has a good reputation.”
Through collaboration with their main donors, a Turkish charity, Elkadour was able to secure travel permits for academics to cross the border between Turkey and Syria to work inside Syria. It is a miniature model of international collaboration that benefits all involved and allows for some constructive flow across the border. The university has over 60 teaching staff, recruiting academics who are currently in exile. “At the time, I heard from colleagues living in Turkey how Cara was helping them. However, I did not have direct communication with Cara until 2019. At the time, Cara organised a roundtable to discuss the challenges facing higher education in northwest Syria. We discussed the sector’s challenges and met with academics from other conflict-affected countries who shared their experiences and approaches with us.”
Since then, Cara has facilitated several other round tables: “Of course, one of the aims of our collaboration with Cara is to share and build our experience, with the hope that we have more opportunities to collaborate with international partners and obtain international accreditation for Al Sham.” Dr Elkadour has also been involved in other projects to improve governance. “We have bylaws and processes in place but are trying to improve those and identify a new governance structure to ensure that we align with internationally recognised quality management and assurance standards. Cara also facilitated visits to several UK universities, Leeds, Kent and Sussex, where we discussed their quality assurance frameworks.”
Elkadour is a diplomat, an activist academic who can detach when need be. He talks about al Sham, with the reality of the earthquakes a background reality. He talks about constitutional amendments and Syrian history and international statecraft, without mentioning the pain caused by this recent tragedy, but it is palpable in the room.