Hussam was an engineering student when the siege of East Ghouta began in 2012. A few credits shy of graduating, he was cut off from his studies at the University of Damascus, just 20 miles away.
Living in a besieged area of the eastern Damascus countryside, Hussam turned to online universities to resume his studies. With no route out of the rebel-held area he lives in, virtual learning was his solution.
However, Hussam is no longer studying to be an engineer. The hands-on training required for a degree cannot be obtained from a distance, he explains to a Syrian Voice correspondent.
Despite the lack of courses in the physical sciences, students under siege are still turning to online university programs, with almost 500 enrolled students in the eastern Damascus countryside.
“Virtual learning isn’t the perfect solution for East Ghouta, for the needs of its residents, but it’s an alternative for students who want to continue studying,” Munir Izz a-Din, the Ministry of Education’s media director in rebel-held East Ghouta, explains to the Syrian Voice.
“If you can’t get gold, don’t waste your silver,” he says.
Logistically, there are many obstacles between students and an online education. Russian-backed air raids by the Syrian regime are a constant fixture in besieged areas such as East Ghouta. Internet access in these rebel-held territories is sporadic at best and for students struggling in a beleaguered economy, paying the tuition of an online degree is a daunting task.
Despite these difficulties, college-aged students are still turning to virtual universities, some after a four-year hiatus, in order to become part of a new generation of educated Syrians.
‘I gave up after only three classes’
The recent virtual learning phenomenon has not yielded only success stories.
“I was registered at al-Farha [Online] Academy for Journalism for just three months,” Mohammed Rahhal, a media activist in the northern Homs countryside, tells the Syrian Voice.
Rahhal had been living in the Deir Baalbeh district of Homs city when regime forces entered his neighborhood in 2012. After fleeing to the northern countryside, currently under siege, he was separated from his studies at the university in his native Homs.
Rahhal tried to continue his education through a virtual university, but it was a failed experiment.
“Just after I began, a battle broke out between the regime and the opposition in the Homs countryside, which interfered with my studies. I gave up after only three classes,” says Rahhal.
Despite being more affordable than a traditional university education, Rahhal says that the cost of an online degree is “high, more than young people in besieged areas can pay.”
For those students who can afford an online program, internet access can be the prohibiting factor.
The Syrian regime’s Russian-backed air campaign has severely impacted the country’s telecommunications system.
With damage to infrastructure and electrical grids, only 28 percent of Syrians have access to internet, according to a 2015 estimate by U.S.-based research and advocacy group Freedom House.
International satellite internet, an alternative route for access, can cost up $350 which is prohibitively expensive for residents of besieged territories.
‘Yes, we need medical staff, but we also need educated members of society’
In East Ghouta, Roshd Virtual University, an online partnership between several Turkish and Malaysian universities, has become the popular virtual university for students.
Offering courses in Arabic, Roshd University provides grant opportunities for Syrian students to earn their degrees in return for work-study hours.
A bachelor’s degree at the university, costing $10,000 over four years, can be paid off by assisting the University with administrative tasks online.
To date, 484 students in East Ghouta have enrolled in Roshd University through these work-study grants.
There is a need in opposition territories for people to educate themselves in a range of disciplines, Abdul Rahman, an East Ghouta student of Roshd University, tells the Syrian Voice.
Abdul Rahman had been studying business administration at Tishreen University in Latakia when the Syrian revolution began. He put off his studies to work as a paramedic with opposition forces in East Ghouta, but now has taken up his studies once more.
Within besieged territories, local organizations like the Education for Hope Society in East Ghouta are doing their part to make online education more accessible.
“We’ve made great strides in solving the problems that cut off students from a university education,” says Moataz, a coordinator for the educational organization.
“We try to meet the students’ needs by providing a study hall with electricity and internet access. It makes it easier for students to attend lectures and take exams,” he adds.
In collaboration with Roshd University, the society was able to secure course materials, recorded lectures, and a library for East Ghouta students enrolled in their university.
Though Roshd University does not offer coursework in medicine or engineering, students in besieged territories are still finding benefits in online education.
Walid al-Adha, a media activist in a besieged Damascus countryside town, told the Syrian Voice that he pursued studies at a virtual university because of the so-called “brain drain.”
As educated Syrians flee from the conflict to countries abroad, the responsibility falls on those remaining to educate themselves, he explains.
“It’s true that we’re in a besieged area. Yes, we need medical staff,” says al-Adha, “but we also need educated members of society, across all fields.”
Translated by Tariq Adely