In the first few years of the Syrian civil war, it is thought that over 2000 academics fled Syria for their security to Turkiye, Lebanon, Jordan, and countries further afield in Europe. “I didn’t leave Syria with those who left in the first two years of the civil war for many reasons,” explains Dr Maher Jesry. Bound by different obligations, familial and professional, an extended assistant professorship contract at the University of Aleppo, where he taught Phonetics and English translation, Jesry was among those who stayed behind: “When the war started in 2011, I used to say, let me stay longer. Maybe things will change because when these demonstrations started in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, they lasted a couple of months and were finished. It will finish next month, next week, next year, but it went on and on, and things got more difficult.”
The chaos of civil war has devastated the Syrian education system in many ways, not least through brain drain, infrastructural damage and financial hardship, but as in all societies where freedom of expression is censored, academics and thinkers are always the first targets; they’re always on the run, fearing detention. The first to be accused of propaganda, they are detained, interrogated, tortured, and sometimes killed. When scholars left in such great numbers, in 2014, the Syrian government even threatened to put them on trial should they return.
But this is a not a war story, even if the war overshadows everything, whether you were an academic, restaurant owner or pickpocket living on the streets of Aleppo or Damascus. To tell stories like this requires that you compromise the safety of others you left behind, and also, the work ahead, and Dr Jesry is too focussed for that.
He does say that in retrospect, life in Aleppo was relatively easy before people dared hope for political change, before people went on peaceful demonstrations to protest against the rule of the Assad family. There was still art, literature, music, and some sense of academic freedom. Electricity, water and gas were not rationed before life became unspeakably tragic. The city had survived wars, earthquakes and plagues and so there was an unshakeable confidence in its survival. After all, Aleppo was a regional and world centre of antiquity, a place of inspiration for the Arab world from time immemorial. “Sometimes,” Jesry says, “when I think of the beauty of Aleppo, Old Aleppo and even the new part, I can’t help but cry. I am sixty years old, so you can imagine how long I lived there.”
A few years before the uprisings, Jesry was part of a pan-Arab festival featuring symposia, publications and architectural rehabilitation. He had researched and translated an Arabic historical text into English, The Golden Book, Documenting the Festival Celebrating Aleppo as the Capital of Islamic Culture, which extolled the longue durée of Aleppo; the rise and fall of civilisations, a city of “trade and industry, tolerance, thought, art and originality”.
Aleppo was a large part of Jesry’s life. He studied English Language and Literature, graduating with his BA in 1984 at Aleppo University. After that, he did mandatory army service before devoting himself to six more years of graduate study in Linguistics at the University of Essex, in England, and later a PhD in Phonetics. In 1996 he returned to Syria to teach, and, except for a six-year teaching post in Saudi Arabia at King Saud University and a few years teaching at Ebla Private University in Saraqeb, he worked at Aleppo University continuously – coaching students, supporting colleagues, a stalwart representative of the Faculty of Arts and Humanity until he could no longer bear the detentions and political violence and shortages that destroyed life in Aleppo as he knew it.
In 2017 he moved to Turkey first, and his wife followed, where millions of fellow Syrians had already settled and where some Syrian academics were being given contracts by Turkish universities. He was reunited with friends and three of his siblings. His children, already living in Germany, at least knew their parents were safe. Gradually, Jesry and his wife adapted to life with uncertainties as exiles do, not knowing when they might see their elderly relatives, avoiding the past, worrying about the safety of those left behind, about finances and the expenses of a new life, about permits, visas, and contracts that are rejected or take too long under red tape, worrying that the people they love might die in the interim.“My wife stayed with her mother for four months last year, but then she had to come back to Turkey. Last month her mother died, and it was very hard. My wife was waiting for a residence permit and in this time, her mother died. We always say things will end well politically. We wait to hear good news. Maybe they will take place soon or never, we don’t know.”
These uncertainties made work difficult, although chaos presents opportunities and he is clear that joining Cara was one. He describes the new opportunities Cara gave him to collaborate on projects with Syrian colleagues, mentored by UK academics and to get his research to publication. “Cara has helped me to a great extent; they offered me the opportunity, opportunities, actually, to work with new colleagues from Syria and with colleagues from the UK. They have shared their time, knowledge and skills and help to get our research to publication, and for this, I’m very grateful to Cara. So far, I have got one paper, and another paper is now under review in one of the journals. We are finishing a draft and we will give it to our mentor; we have started analysing data for another, that was recently approved and funded by Cara.”
With seven other colleagues from Turkey and Syria, he has just worked on an important paper exploring the best ways to deliver quality higher education in the conflict-affected northwest of Syria by applying risk-management quality-assurance models for emerging universities in NWS. However, these universities function with a fraction of the staff they need. In addition, they need more financial support, better oversight, and better international recognition and accreditation and Jesry is proud of this article because everyone poured their hearts into it because they cared about the future of education in Syria. Furthermore, he is proud of the collaborative nature of the paper, the hard work done between Turkey, Syria and the UK. “Everyone played their part, working with Prof. John Simons, our Cara mentor who guided and gave feedback on the academic writing.” he says.
What is obvious is the strength and vitality he and his colleagues possess, crucial since they will be the rebuilders of the community, quietly, without recognition, addressing the complex needs of the people through their research. Jesry (sixty years young), with his colleagues, are surely among those experts who will be called upon to do the heavy mental lifting, rebuilding, and remembering.
Recently in England for a month at Leicester University, on a Cara-funded visit with two Cara-research mentors, a fellow Syrian, Dr Mohammed Ateek, based at Leicester University, and Dr Sebastian Rasinger, based at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, he made time on a rainy evening to talk. The week had been busy and productive, observing seminars and discussions about a new Cara-supported project on language policies among Syrian refugees in Turkey, which he will be doing with his old colleague Dr Saad Vafaibaaj. “We have to work,” he says, “I want to work. When I talk about the past, it is painful, so I don’t. I focus instead on the work that faces the Syrian abroad.” That’s what you do when you say farewell and move on. “So, what shall we talk about?” is the first thing he says with a smile.