AMMAN: As Syrian government forces rolled through rebel-held east Aleppo one year ago, Samia, then 21 years old, gathered all her school papers and records together at her family’s home in the city’s Sukkari district. Then, she set them on fire.
Amid the panic and chaos of the final days of rebel control in Aleppo city, Samia says she was afraid that any evidence of her studies at an opposition-run university in east Aleppo could lead to an arrest by government forces. Stories of arbitrary arrest and killings were spreading throughout the opposition neighborhoods, and she did not want to take any chances.
Samia watched as fire reduced every trace of her studies at the Free Aleppo University—where she was a second-year Arabic literature student—into ash and smoke.
Shortly afterwards, her family fled the advancing frontline for the relative safety of the government-held western districts in the days before east Aleppo fell.
“Years of my life gone, like that, like they were nothing,” Samia told Syria Direct from Aleppo city’s New Aleppo neighborhood, where she now lives with her family. She asked not to be identified by her full name in this report.
Students at a branch of Free Aleppo University near Damascus in November. Image courtesy of Free Aleppo University.
One year after burning her education records, Samia is still out of school. Now 22, she is studying to retake an entrance exam that will allow her to enroll in the Syrian government’s Aleppo University.
In east Aleppo, as in other rebel-held parts of Syria, students such as Samia studied in a parallel—and officially unrecognized—school system run by the opposition’s interim government. When government forces, backed by an intense aerial bombardment campaign, recaptured all of Aleppo city in December 2016, the opposition school system there ceased to exist.
Because the Syrian government does not recognize high school or college diplomas issued by opposition institutions, Samia and other former students who remained in Aleppo city must now repeat their educations starting from the last level they reached in government schools.
“We do not recognize any degree that we did not issue,” Ahmad Ramadan, the head of Degree Authentication at the Syrian Ministry of Education in Damascus told Syria Direct on Monday.
The Syrian opposition’s interim government established Free Aleppo University (FAU) in late 2015, with colleges in Aleppo city and branches across opposition-held Syria. Prior to the government recapture of Aleppo in December 2016, FAU colleges of law, literature and sharia were located in the city’s opposition-held eastern districts.
When government forces reasserted control, the colleges in east Aleppo ceased to exist and students who remained in the city found that their opposition degrees and school credits were now useless.
A Free Aleppo University class near Damascus in November. Image courtesy of Free Aleppo University.
The former head of the colleges in east Aleppo and current president of the opposition government’s Free Aleppo University Abdelqader a-Sheikh told Syria Direct on Tuesday that his school was “a pioneering and successful step in every way” and laid blame for former students’ current troubles with the government.
“The problem is not with us, it is with the regime,” a-Sheikh told Syria Direct from the north Aleppo countryside. “A student enrolled at Free Aleppo University could continue their studies.”
In rebel- and government-held Syria alike, 12th-year high school students who wish to attend university sit for a nationwide exam known as the baccalaureate exam. The test scores then determine which university and major a student can enroll in. Young people living in rebel-held parts of Syria travel to government areas each year to sit for these exams, but an opposition-run baccalaureate exam is also available.
One Aleppo city student who took the opposition-administered baccalaureate exam is Munir. Now 21, he studied for the test twice while living in east Aleppo’s Saif a-Dawlah district. On his first attempt, in 2013, “terrible living conditions” and the responsibilities of helping his family prevented him from sitting for the exam, he says. But on his second try, in late 2014, he succeeded.
“Soon after, I heard that a university had opened, so I enrolled in an English literature program,” Munir told Syria Direct from Aleppo city. “It had been my dream, ever since I was little.”
Munir is referring to Free Aleppo University. In 2016, both Munir and Samia were students at the College of Literature—Samia studying Arabic, and Munir studying English.
He, like Samia, burned all his school documents before leaving Saif a-Dawla with his family on December 1, 2016. A cousin serving in the Syrian military met Munir and his family on the frontline near their district and spirited them by car into the government-held west.
“After the regime captured more than half of the liberated neighborhoods, we heard that they were killing and arresting young men in the areas they came into,” Munir recalled. “I was afraid of being arrested [in the west] of course, but that’s relative compared with death.”
Shortly after arriving in west Aleppo, “overwhelmed and tired of everything,” Munir volunteered to serve in the Syrian army to avoid possible arrest and conscription.
Now in the army and in government-held Syria, Munir’s opposition baccalaureate degree and initial studies at Free Aleppo University mean nothing. Even if he had not burned the documents, they would not be recognized.
Once in the army, Munir was stationed at a checkpoint in Aleppo city—where he says he is currently serving for a salary of approximately 40 dollars per month—and studied on his own to retake the baccalaureate exam, this time at a government test center. He says he scored higher than he did in east Aleppo, but as a soldier has not been able to return to his studies.
“My future, like the futures of so many other young people,” he told Syria Direct, “was lost between opposition and regime rule.”
FAU president a-Sheikh—who was dean of the College of Law at the government-recognized Aleppo University before the revolution broke out—stated that “vigorous efforts” are being made to gain recognition from Turkey and “some Arab countries” for the opposition institution’s degrees.
“God willing, recognition will come,” said a-Sheikh.
In Aleppo city, Samia is studying to retake the baccalaureate exam and hopes to enroll in Aleppo University. She took a government-administered exam before the revolution, but her score was too low to allow her to study literature. In opposition-held east Aleppo, she got a better score and went to university, but now she has to take the test for a third time.
“We had hoped the regime would collapse and a degree from the interim government would become recognized everywhere,” she told Syria Direct.
But the regime did not collapse, Aleppo city returned to government control and now Samia—who says she knows many other students in a similar situation to hers—must retrace her steps to continue to study.
“Children and students are the greatest victims, the greatest losers in this war,” she told Syria Direct.
“Now, I’m starting again from zero.”
Additional reporting by Adeeb Mansour.
This report is part of Syria Direct’s month-long coverage of northwestern Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.