This summer, 23-year-old Nader Gharib, the pseudonym of a university student in Damascus, will graduate with a degree in electronic media from Damascus University.
What is it like studying for four years in a country torn apart by war?
“On the outside, university life in Damascus today looks normal. But any student who was here before, in 2011 or prior to that, knows that it isn’t normal at all,” Gharib tells Syria Direct’s Mohammed al-Haj Ali.
“You see things you shouldn’t be seeing at a university, like people in military uniforms everywhere.”
University enrollment “is constantly decreasing” as young people abandon their studies or flee the country.
“Depression hangs in the air and clings to university-aged young people today,” says Gharib, describing a stifling atmosphere on the campus of Syria’s largest and oldest university.
“It’s hard to concentrate. All students are under psychological pressure.”
Q: What is university life like now? What is happening on campus? Do you feel safe there?
On the outside, university life in Damascus today looks normal. But any student who was here before, in 2011 or prior to that, knows that it isn’t normal at all.
The number of students is constantly decreasing. You see things that you shouldn’t be seeing at a university, like people in military uniforms everywhere.
Depression hangs in the air and clings to university-aged young people today.
I feel safe on campus, but not completely. Any student who’s opposed to the regime risks arrest if somebody informs on them. I’m trying to live with the current reality at university.
Q: Do you have chances to visit and go out with friends, or has this become more difficult?
We go out sometimes, to cafes or clubs. Most of us have to be careful not to stay out late because of the deteriorating security situation in Syria and problems with transportation.
Q: Many university professors have emigrated. Do you feel that this has impacted the quality of education?
Education at Damascus University today is in a terrible state, unfortunately. Many professors have left the country. Others have been fired, for various reasons—corruption, so-called political reasons, et cetera.
There’s also cheating, but it depends on the college. Some colleges, like the college of mechanical engineering, have gotten a widespread reputation for cheating, while the situation is better in others.
Q: Do you find it difficult to focus on your studies given the situation in Syria? Or does studying provide an escape?
Of course it’s hard to concentrate. All students are under psychological pressure given the current circumstances. I try to focus as much as I can, regardless, but there’s no escaping the impact of events in Syria.
For me, studying doesn’t provide an escape. It might preoccupy me for days, but it can’t provide an escape from the bad reality the war imposes on every Syrian citizen today, and especially university students.
Q: Young men are under a lot of scrutiny in Damascus. What is it like when you are coming and going from the university?
Personally, I don’t face problems coming to the university, especially because I live in an area that is calm and controlled by the army. I have an official military service deferral, and so I avoid harassment at the checkpoints.
I’ve gotten some verbal abuse at the checkpoints, but I ignore it for fear it might lead to a problem that would get me arrested.
Q: What are your plans for after you graduate? Will you look for work? Will you leave Syria?
I don’t have many options. I know how hard it is to travel right now since most countries have imposed what are essentially impossible conditions for Syrians to get visas. And it’s hugely expensive.
University students like me are facing a dilemma: We can’t stay and we can’t leave legally.