Syria is Beautiful
When the earthquake happened, Professor Miassar Alhasan and his family were fast asleep in their home in Gaziantep, Turkey. They threw themselves on their daughter to protect her, then rushed out into the cold. He returned to retrieve some documents, and then they jumped into his car, driving until their petrol ran out. The petrol stations were closed, so they walked to where they saw other people gathering and sleeping and stayed there for a few days while the violent aftershocks continued.
Alhasan made frantic phone calls to Al-Sham University, across the border in Azaz, northwest Syria where he works as rector, to see if his colleagues and students were safe. He was given different reports: people he knew had been rushed to hospital, an exam was stopped, colleagues were in shock, local NGOs were helping to pull people from under the rubble, and tents and water were being negotiated. Staff had offered some financial assistance to students, but the situation was too overwhelming and sudden. The students had lost relatives and returned to their villages and camps to look for their families. He was told that the regime had exploited the delivery of humanitarian aid and tried to take control. They shelled the towns most affected by the earthquake. The UN watched Syrians die for several days without offering any help. “They had to obtain permission from the criminal regime to rescue people from under the rubble. It was a very painful thing for us. Cara has played a very supportive role in this crisis. A few hours later, Cara called us after the earthquake to check on our safety. Kate (Robertson) called me while I was under the snow with our family. We were searching for a safe place. It was very emotional; all my colleagues agree. After that, Cara organised a fund to support affected academics, and our UK colleagues also contacted us to support us, asking who was still alive and who had died.”
In the face of disaster, it is natural to be fatalistic, but Alhasan’s students inspired him to imagine the future differently. They acted on the belief that people needed information. His civil engineering students went out into the local community and helped in the best way possible. For example, the river to the West had overflowed and was contaminated with sewage. “Some of those students travelled on an unsecured road (and I was in contact with them the whole time) to test the water. They went and informed the local people not to drink it”.
Other students examined the damage to buildings and offered to assist with securing houses and buildings via a community WhatsApp group for local information, “I knew it was dangerous and very unstable. I coordinated with them and several engineers,” Alhasan says. “They did the general surveys for all the buildings, helped some families to return to their homes and persuaded others to leave.”
Overnight, the students became the go-to source of information for the local community. The students explained the dangers of the aftershocks, the public health risks, and the dangers of spending long nights and days in the freezing cold. “Now they have moved to Afrin to continue their work there” he explains. “I used to run an NGO in Gaziantep and knew many people who could help; I wrote to a charity called Mercy without Limits, that agreed to support the students to continue their survey and help them rebuild people’s homes.”
A few days later, Alhasan penned an article for university world news appealing to the global higher education sector for help. He, in turn, explained to his family that he had to return to Al-Sham to assist. It was still standing with mostly new concrete buildings, and so had sustained minimal damage. Necessary lab equipment, however, had been destroyed: “It is not easy to buy more. Most of it was given to us by Cara, by NGOs. It is not easy. We established this institution with great difficulties, and you can’t imagine that in 65 seconds, you can lose everything. After two weeks, we resumed the second semester online, but most of our students don’t have laptops, so online is not an option, and we must continue in person.”
When the war broke out in 2011, Alhasan was teaching at the Assad Academy for Military Engineering in Aleppo. For 15 years, he taught engineering communications covering computers and data operating systems, modern and advanced control systems, advanced control lines, optical coordinators and intelligent control systems. He did his PhD in Penza, Russia, where he lived for five years. He liked Russia. Friends the family made there visited him in Syria. He returned to Syria, expecting to work as a professor at the Assad Academy for an unforeseeable period.
But the war transformed everyone’s life. Alhasan opposed the Assad regime and had no intention of taking up arms against the people. “I love my country; I love my people. I think Syria is one of the most beautiful places in the world. They have been killing us for over fifty years. It is very difficult for a Syrian. We want to feel ourselves in the world.”
Alhasan will never forget the Hama Uprising, or Massacre, as it is sometimes called. He was born and grew up in Hama, a pretty city on the banks of the Orontes River in west-central Syria. In 1982, the Syrian Arab Army besieged Hama for 27 days to quell an uprising by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, whose discontent against al-Assad’s government stretched back to the 1970s. The massacre was so severe that people were forbidden to talk about it. “At that time, there was no internet, no journalists.” But Alhasan recalls, “I was about 12 years old, and I remember people who were killed.”
He and his family moved west from Aleppo to Idlib, which was considered rebel territory at the time. “Many of my students stayed with me and followed me, and we established an NGO and built the first solar lamps in Syria in 2014. My young students wanted to do something. They didn’t want to give up to sadness. We had no electricity, so we made it from solar panels and a little battery. We first set them up in the dark streets of Aleppo, which the opposition forces held at that time. We also made a solar panel controller to track the movement of the sun. I got some suggestions and support from other engineers.”
Throughout the war, they used their engineering skills to help people.”I asked an NGO to send me wheelchairs, but they said it would be too expensive, so that I made contacts in Turkey and China. We bought two containers of second hand and damaged wheelchairs, motorised and repaired them. After that, I ordered a container of laptops, but none of them worked. We fixed them, using pieces from one to repair another and from 700 broken laptops, we made about 473 and distributed them virtually free to students.”
From Idlib, he relocated to Gaziantep, Turkey, where he now lives, crossing the border to Al-Sham to teach a range of programmes: control engineering, control theory and automation, and sustainable energy systems. He feels rewarded when he can teach students how to stand on their own and be self-sufficient. Did he have a teacher who inspired him? It was a primary school teacher who taught his students how to love and planted in his students the idea of investing in one another.
Alhasan pauses. “You know, most of our students live in camps, and so that the campus, which is really poor compared to a national university, means a lot to them. They come to the campus and take photographs under the trees and in classrooms.”
In some sense, he explains, people want to return to their villages, to their towns, to be reunited with one another across regions and ideological lines. Living through one emergency after another, a war and an earthquake, makes it hard for him to trust in the future, but Syria’s beauty makes it hard for him to look away.