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Syrian Students at Bard College Berlin: A Humanistic Imperative

Muhannad Qaiconie ’20 in the library he founded.
Photo ©UNHCR/Gordon Welters
By James Rodewald '82
In the Bardian

More than 1 million refugees and asylum seekers have arrived in Germany in the last two years. About half were Syrians fleeing a conflict that has killed more than 400,000 and displaced millions more. It is a revolutionary war, a sectarian war, a civil war, a religious war, a proxy war; but its complexity makes it all too easy to forget that, more than anything, it is a human tragedy. In addition to the tragedy of lives lost is the heartbreaking fact that many of those forced to leave were students. Among the multitude of problems this influx has created for Germany—economic, cultural, political, logistical—finding a way for thousands of smart, resilient, and very motivated young men and women to continue their education has not been, understandably, the most pressing one. However, the conflict began in part as a protest against the mistreatment of teenagers who had been arrested and tortured after painting revolutionary slogans on the walls of a school. Young Syrians have a lot at stake.

A recent event at Luhring Augustine gallery in New York City, “From Surviving to Thriving: Syrian Refugees Speak,” put a few inspiring faces and names to the numbing numbers. One of the organizers, Sana Mustafa ’17, spoke movingly of what it meant to come to Bard to resume her studies. Even something as seemingly mundane as having her own room was transformative. She had a private place to mourn, process her loss and dislocation, and become more than just another faceless refugee; to become herself again.

In addition to Mustafa, panelists were former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Jeh Charles Johnson, President and CEO of Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society Mark Hetfield, and Senior Vice-President, International Programs, International Rescue Committee Ciarán Donnely. Gallery owner and Bard College Trustee Roland J. Augustine moderated the discussion and opened the evening with a note from Bard President Leon Botstein, who was out of the country: “The issue is the need to provide the refugees the education and the passage to life, either as new citizens or as exiled or even as potential returnees to their countries. The tragedy of displacement for a young generation must be mitigated by educational opportunity as a humanistic imperative.”

One of the difficulties of addressing this particular need for Syrians in Germany is that few of them speak German, so efforts initially focused primarily on language education. But Bard College Berlin was uniquely situated to do more right away: the language of instruction there is English, which many Syrians do speak. Augustine recognized this advantage. In 2015, after volunteering to work with refugees in Calais, France, an experience he calls “life changing,” Augustine thought about what could be done, “given that many of these remarkable and gifted young people had not only been displaced from their homeland but any possibility of future education had been eradicated.” As a trustee of the College he was intimately familiar with Bard’s long history of welcoming refugees (see Spring 2017 Bardian, page 8), and with the Bard network. “I thought particularly about the Bard Prison Initiative, which began 15 years ago and provides free education to qualified inmates at six medium- and maximum-security prisons in New York State. I thought, Why can’t we do something similar at Bard College Berlin for refugees?”

In March 2016, Augustine and several other private donors joined together to provide five full scholarships, for students from areas of crisis, under the auspices of the Program for International Education and Social Change (PIE-SC). Last year an additional five scholarships were funded, and today the number stands at 16: 13 from Syria and one each from Greece, Afghanistan, and Iraq. A million-dollar donation was made anonymously last year, which provides funds for 20 matching scholarships specifically for Syrian students. Once those matches are fulfilled—likely in the 2019–20 academic year—30 students from areas of crisis will be fully enrolled at Bard College Berlin, with four years of tuition and room and board paid for by generous donors.

A common criticism of initiatives like the PIE-SC scholarships is that they are too small in scale to be meaningful, and 16 divided by many thousands is certainly a small percentage. But people are not statistics. As Florian Becker, managing director of Bard College Berlin, says, “Of course we’re entirely aware that [the scholarships] can be dismissed as a drop in the bucket. But when you see what it does for those students, and what it means to their life situations, and to their perspectives, then I get impatient with that charge. Because of course we’re small and we cannot change the world, but we try to punch above our weight.”

That punch is powerful for those who are directly affected, but the Bard community, and society in general, also benefit. Wafa Mustafa ’20, Sana’s sister, is in the Humanities, the Arts, and Social Thought degree program at Bard College Berlin. “I’m from Masyaf, a small village in the middle of Syria,” says Wafa. “I moved to the city to study journalism and media. Two months after I went to a protest in support of the revolution I was arrested by the regime. When I was released I went back to my college, but I was told I wasn’t a student there anymore. Then, in July 2013, our dad got arrested in Damascus.”

His arrest meant that the family had to flee immediately to ensure that the regime wouldn’t come after family members and use them to force their father to talk. (Sana happened to be in the United States at the time on what was supposed to be a six-week exchange program; without a home to go back to, she was eventually granted political asylum.) They went to Turkey with virtually nothing but the clothes on their backs. “It was me, my mother, and my youngest sister,” Wafa continues. “One of us had to work because we needed money and we knew nobody and had no help from anyone. For three years I worked in Turkey, first with a radio station and then with a newspaper and then with a website as an editor and a reporter.”

She worked 16 to 17 hours a day. The work helped push down the understandable depression she was experiencing: one of her closest friends had been killed, she was far from home and from the revolution she continued to believe in passionately, her father’s condition and whereabouts remained unknown, and the bureaucracy of applying for asylum was worthy of Kafka. “In Syria I always had the hope that I would continue my studies at some point,” Wafa explains. “But in Turkey it felt like: That’s it. This is how it’s going to be for the rest of my life.” In 2016, with the encouragement of Sana—who by then was studying in Annandale through a scholarship from the Institute of International Education’s Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis—Wafa applied to Bard College Berlin.

“At the beginning I felt like a Pokémon,” says Wafa. “I was too scared to say anything in class. I was scared they would ask me to say my name and I would have a heart attack. And then classes started and everything got better. Teachers were so helpful. They motivated me. They kept telling me, it’s not about the language, it’s about the thoughts. And you have good ideas, you just need to say them. I’m thinking about this as a good time to collect knowledge. Eventually, I believe, I will go back to Syria.”

Like Wafa Mustafa, Muhannad Qaiconie ’20 faced daunting obstacles in his journey. In 2013, after his family’s apartment in Aleppo was bombed, he left Syria for Lebanon, where he worked first in construction and then for a hairdresser. From there he moved to Turkey, where he was a hairdresser’s assistant, but after a year of sending money to help his family survive he decided he wanted to begin the difficult task of reuniting with them in Europe. That’s when his real odyssey began.

Qaiconie survived the perilous Aegean crossing to Greece; finally made it through Macedonia after being sent back three times by police; traversed Serbia; and managed to get into immigrant-unfriendly Hungary, where he paid $140 for a ride to Budapest and several hundred more for a ride across the Austrian border to Germany. After more than 1,500 miles by boat, bus, train, car, and on foot, he ended up in a jail cell in the German border city of Passau. However, instead of being treated once again like a piece on a board game—go back to Macedonia, do not pass Go, do not collect $200—Qaiconie was sent to an asylum center. There his daily life went from uncertainty, danger, and discomfort to uncertainty, restlessness, and bureaucracy as he waited for his application for asylum to be processed.

A July 2015 article on Qaiconie and a fellow Syrian refugee in the Christian Science Monitor brought him a guardian angel. The writer, Kristen Chick, was contacted by a reader who was touched by his story. Chick put the two together by email and shortly thereafter Qaiconie got a note that said, “When I read Kristen’s newspaper story about you I thought: this young man is very special, I want to help him and his family. You seem like a very proud person (as you should be!), so I hope I do not offend by asking to help you. . . . I am not rich, but am happy to share with you. When you are my age, you can pay it back by helping someone else, OK?”

Because of the financial assistance, Qaiconie no longer had to dedicate himself fully to merely staying afloat. That freed him to think about what he really wanted to do, and it didn’t take long for him to realize that what he most wanted was to resume his education. When he learned of PIE-SC’s newly established scholarship program, he applied to Bard College Berlin. But he didn’t just fill out forms: he had read about the College’s annual conference, which that year was called “Thinking Beyond ‘Crisis,’” and decided to attend. There he had a long conversation with Roger Berkowitz, associate professor of political studies and human rights, and the academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities in Annandale. Berkowitz was so impressed with the young Syrian he wrote a letter in support of his application.

“I met Muhannad when he introduced himself to me at the conference,” recalls Berkowitz. “He was a young man deeply engaged in questions around Hannah Arendt’s work. On his own he has read nearly her entire oeuvre. Given the difficulties of his life, that is something of an astonishing accomplishment. What is more, he has processed much of it and is clearly one of the most mature and openminded students I’ve encountered. I enjoyed talking to him as a reader of Arendt, and I am thrilled that he is now a student at Bard College Berlin.”

And Qaiconie has already started paying it back, or, more accurately, forward. He is a founder of Baynatna (Between Us), the first Arabic library in Berlin. Between Us has quickly become a treasured place to gather and listen to music; browse books; share resources and ideas; hear authors read (in Arabic, often with German or English translation); and find fellowship. Furthermore, Marion Detjen, who taught a class on migration history that Qaiconie took, says that having students like him enriched the course for everyone. “How can you talk about this topic if you shut out the experiences of people who are now living with us and who have all this firsthand knowledge?” Detjen asks.

Karam Alhamad ’20, who is studying for the Economics, Politics, and Social Thought degree at Bard College Berlin, also has a rich—and horrific—store of such firsthand knowledge. And he has shared what he witnessed through photographs and videos. Although he had always been interested in journalism, and even worked for the main newspaper in his hometown of Deir ez-Zor, a city on the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, it wasn’t until protests broke out in 2011 that he took up a camera. Over the following four years, he was jailed by the Syrian regime four times, the longest stint being 11 months in 2014, nine and a half of which was in the notorious Branch 235 prison (also known as the Palestine Branch). While there, ever the journalist, he kept track of the number of people who died. The total reached 73 before he was released.

“When I got out I went into a Free Syrian Army area of the city, or so I thought, but I was shocked to find ISIS there,” recalls Alhamad. “That’s why I decided not to stay in Syria. But I couldn’t get a passport. I had a red line under my name. I was wanted by the regime. I still am. So I wasn’t allowed to leave. This led me to (cross illegally) into Turkey.”

Once there, Alhamad found work with the Syrian opposition government and won a Leaders for Democracy Fellowship to study at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. “I applied for a visa from the U.S. Consulate and I got it, but the Turkish police wouldn’t allow me to leave,” Alhamad says. “So I talked to a French journalist I’d worked with and she did a story about the situation. After that I got a call from an assistant to the prime minister of Turkey telling me to go to the airport, that I could go, but officers there didn’t allow me to leave. They refused to talk to the prime minister’s assistant, so he told me to put him on speaker. Finally the officers allowed me to leave by the diplomatic gate. That was March 2015. I stayed in the U.S. for four months, two in Syracuse. Then I had a two-month internship with Amnesty International in Washington, D.C., as part of the fellowship.”

Alhamad returned to Turkey, where he did consulting work and also had a long-term research job with a program funded by USAID. At that point he was just two semesters from earning the degree in petroleum engineering he’d begun studying for in Syria, so he began investigating ways of finishing his undergraduate work. “I got a scholarship to study in the U.S. through the Institute of International Education (IIE),” he says. “The U.S. school was going to allow me to transfer my credits. But because of Mister Trump, I couldn’t go to the U.S.”

Yet again, a door was slammed in Alhamad’s face. But he had endured much worse, and remained undaunted. “IIE gave me two alternative options,” Alhamad says. “A medical engineering program in France was one, and the second was Bard College Berlin. I visited in May 2017, I liked it, and I decided to go. The big stretch for me at the beginning was that instead of having two more semesters to study before graduating, I would now have to study eight semesters. Before Mister Trump I could’ve graduated in two semesters and then maybe I would have gone on to earn a master’s in economics. But I love Bard College Berlin! And they were able to transfer some credits; also I got some credits for my work experience.”

Though Alhamad is referring to his research and consulting work, his photography and video are also certainly creditworthy. His YouTube page is full of powerful images of what it means to live a life surrounded by violence. To see small children being pulled from a bombed-out building is, of course, terrible. To see the lack of surprise on their faces makes it clear that this is all they have known. That is more terrifying than anything Hollywood could conjure. The videos are difficult to watch. But for Alhamad they can also be a salve. “After what I’ve been through and what Syria has been through, the way I think about the photos, the videos, my experiences, my body—it all makes me stronger, it makes me who I am,” says Alhamad, whose legs still show the scars of the torture he endured in prison. “I took the photos and videos and posted them to show people what’s going on in Syria—the cruelty of the Syrian government since 2011. Those photos touch my heart. Sometimes when I feel disconnected I go back to the photos and videos and I get tears in my eyes, but I need that to stay connected to what’s happening. I understand that for most people it’s a new thing, they have not witnessed such cruelty. But for me it’s an experience that should and must be understood by other people.”

For more information on Bard College Berlin, or to make a gift to the scholarship program, visit berlin.bard.edu.

Read the Spring 2018 Bardian
Post Date: 07-19-2018