Within sight of the Syrian border, the Za'atari refugee camp spreads out in a sea of white-canvas tents across barren hills into the cerulean sky of the Jordanian desert. Home to some 140,000 people, it's hard to call it a camp, having become one of Jordan's largest cities. Most of the refugees are from the villages and towns of southern Syria, where the uprising against the authoritarian rule of Bashar al-Assad began two years ago.
In mid-April I traveled to the camp with colleagues to meet with Syrian university students as part of a joint research project of the University of California at Davis's Human Rights Initiative and the Institute of International Education's Scholar Rescue Fund. Before we went, U.N. officials and relief workers had told us that there were no university students there; we would find only poor and uneducated villagers. We were even cautioned against going at all, because the refugees might be openly hostile to Western visitors and had attacked employees of nongovernmental organizations in the past. Indeed, the day after our visit, a riot broke out between refugees and Jordanian guards.
And yet, sitting under a giant tent, around white-plastic picnic tables, and speaking entirely in Arabic, we met with 18 university students whose studies had been interrupted by the war. Most were women, though we also spoke with a handful of men. These were polite, though often intense, conversations, punctuated with laughter. We learned that they had been students at Damascus University, its branch campuses, or Al-Ba'ath University, near Homs. Some had been in the camp for months; others had just arrived. They had been studying law, history, biology, education, engineering, computer science, and pharmacy. And they were only a handful of the tens of thousands of Syrian students dispersed throughout the region.
I had lived in Syria—Damascus and Aleppo—for much of the 1990s and have returned every few years since then. It was where I did the research for my first book, Being Modern in the Middle East (Princeton University Press, 2006), about the emergence of the Syrian middle class. Higher education had been part of that process.
When the father of Syria's current president seized power, in the early 1970s, the country embarked upon an ambitious expansion of higher education. The chance to send one's children—especially young women—to college became a key element of the country's development, but also of the ruling Ba'ath Party's "authoritarian social contract," by which political quiescence was exchanged for the approximation of a comfortable middle-class lifestyle and the chance for social advancement.
The misconception that there were no university students in Za'atari stems from the way aid workers often imagine refugees. Historically, whether it's Armenian survivors of genocide, Palestinians displaced by the creation of Israel, or Iraqis fleeing foreign invasion and civil war, Middle Eastern refugees can appear to be an undifferentiated, opaque mass in the collective consciousness of international humanitarianism.
Not understanding the diversity of refugees and the societies from which they come is a problem in addressing their immediate suffering and helping them either to begin new lives elsewhere or to return and rebuild their societies. This is certainly the case for Syria's ambitious and talented university students, who could be a modern and moderating force in a post-conflict Syria.
I went to Za'atari with Adrienne Fricke, a human-rights expert who wrote the Human Rights Initiative report with me. We wanted to know what future the students envision for themselves, and to document the obstacles they face as they seek to continue their studies. Those problems range from the practical—lacking transcripts—to the intractable: choosing between paying rent or tuition. Still, the students we spoke with expressed an intense desire to renew their studies, even if it meant leaving their families and traveling farther abroad. As one law student in the camp told us, "In our home, studying is holy"—and her home at the moment was a tent.
Our conversations also gave us a glimpse into the horror the young people had fled. They told us about demonstrations and growing political consciousness on campuses, followed by violent crackdowns by plainclothes militiamen, known as the Shabiha, or "ghosts," working alongside secret police and soldiers. The students reported that their dorm rooms had been searched, computers taken, and colleagues arrested or "disappeared." But it was the fear of having to fight in a war they wanted no part of, and unrelenting insecurity, that drove many of them and their families into exile.
Others fled because of their political activism. One of the urban refugees we met was a young man in his early 20s, whom we will call Majid. He had been at Damascus University when he became involved in organizing antiregime demonstrations using Facebook and Google Maps. After a secret-police raid on his family's home, during which his laptop and books were seized, he was brought before a military court and accused of the Orwellian crime of "undermining nationalist sentiments in a time of war."
Released after 25 days in the Damascus central jail, he was summarily suspended by the university's ethics committee and so became eligible for induction into the army, where he would probably have been killed. His family paid thousands of dollars for a forged exit permit and bribed a border guard to get him to safety.
Of the stories I heard, this was the one that has most vividly stayed with me. The historian in me felt Majid's attachment to his books, and with their confiscation his loss of identity and the assault on his dignity. But more important, he had claimed his human rights in the eloquent language of nonviolence and was continuing to pay a terrible price.
The challenge for us who will write the history of Syria and the broader Arab Spring is to remember that many Syrians bravely sought to change their society without guns. The sectarianism and Islamist radicalism that define the war now came only after the regime's brutal suppression of that movement, the arrival of sanguinary jihadist fighters, and the West's inaction. Majid is resilient, and I think he will be OK. His family outside Syria has money to help him to finish his studies in Jordan.
As we drove away from Za'atari, I recalled another time of war, in 2003, when I had directed a similar research project, in Baghdad. I had documented the looting of universities and the burning of libraries, and witnessed the incompetence and poisonous arrogance of the Americans sent to run Iraq. Yet the universities functioned, and students attended class. Even in the darkest days, Iraq's universities remained places of possibility.
This is not true for Syria. There is no reason to believe that the war, which has taken more than 80,000 lives and made millions refugees, will end soon. Syrian society itself is collapsing and, along with it, its universities.
As I sat in the shade of that giant tent, I knew that I was looking across the table into the faces of Syria's lost generation.
Keith David Watenpaugh, an associate professor, is director of the University of California at Davis's Human Rights Initiative. His book Bread From Stone: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism is forthcoming from the University of California Press.