Free Aleppo University: Displacement Leaves Marks but Educational Process Resists

Faculty of Dentistry in the Free University of Aleppo - October 2, 2018 (University Young Lens page on Facebook)

Faculty of Dentistry in the Free University of Aleppo - October 2, 2018 (University Young Lens page on Facebook)


In the city of Marea, in the northern countryside of Aleppo, a student named Hima unpacks her bags and settles in, leaving her family in the city of Idlib to continue her university education. Her entire university was “displaced” from rural Idlib, under pressure from the so-called Salvation Government.

Hima Hamido, 26, said she is now forced to adapt to the new community she inhabits, speaking to Enab Baladi. Although the university’s existence gives her hope of completing her education, everything comes at a cost.

“The problem is the distance from the city of Idlib. I need to travel four hours to go to my family’s house every two or three weeks,” says Hima, a fourth-year student at the Faculty of Medicine at the Free Aleppo University. She added that things are changing for the better, after facing initial challenges such as the weak student capacity of the university, and the lack of housing for students.

Beyond Hima, hundreds of other students at the Free Aleppo University were forced to leave rural Aleppo and Idlib to settle in the towns of Azaz and Marea in the northern countryside of Aleppo, after the university relocated its headquarters in March.

The Council of Higher Education, which is linked to the so-called Salvation Government, came to control the headquarters of Free Aleppo University after pressures on the university to join the Council.

The University said in a statement issued on March 17 that the Council for Higher Education had taken over the buildings of the colleges and institutes of the University of Aleppo in Atarib, Ma’arat al-Nu’man, A’wejel, Termaninand and Kafar Sijnah.

Difficulties Eased by “Centrality”

Enab Baladi met with four students at the Free Aleppo University agreed that the relocation of its headquarters to the towns of Marea and Azaz caused several problems related to their educational, residential and social situation, some of which they overcame while challenges persist for some.

The University administration and faculty members acknowledge these difficulties. Dr. Mazen al-Saud, a professor at the Faculty of Medicine at the Free Aleppo University, said, “At first, it was very difficult, as suddenly thousands of students moved from one area to another geographically remote one. There are a lot of checkpoints, but the situation has improved.”

“There are logistical difficulties, and in terms of student capacity,” Dr al-Saud said, speaking to Enab Baladi. He added, “We at the medical school left our laboratories at our earlier universities and moved to small laboratories in Marea. There is a deficit and we are seeking to address it.”

For his part, the Minister of Higher Education in the Interim Government, and professor at the Faculty of Economics at the Free Aleppo University, Dr. Abdul Aziz al-Daghim, said that “the status of the University of Aleppo improved in terms of central administration (after the transfer of headquarters), and the administration, staff and deans of colleges gathered in one location, in Azaz where the main staff is, in addition to Marea where the medical staff is.”

On the other hand, the University lost a number of students who could not move to the locations of the new headquarters. Their numbers are not large, however, according to al-Saud and al-Daghim.

Between Marea and Azaz, the Housing Crisis is One

The views of the students who moved to their new colleges varied around the host society and the situation of universities. Students at the medical schools such as faculties of medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, and the medical institute, headed to the city of Marea, while Azaz received students from other disciplines.

Hima Hamido found a new opportunity to acquire knowledge that was not available when her college was located in the city of Kafr Takharim in rural Idlib. The hospital, opened by the Turkish government last year, granted additional education opportunities to her and her colleagues.

As for Wael Jumaa, the second year IT engineering student, he believes that there is no stability for the students who were in the western countryside of Aleppo or those from Idlib, stressing that there are many difficulties faced by students in Azaz, especially in terms of housing.

Thaer Jumaa, who attends the University’s computer science institute, said the situation has become “less stable for students, with fewer university staff.”

On the other hand, the students Enab Baladi met with stressed that the housing crisis is the most stressful factor for the students, both in Marea as well as Azaz.

The university has tried to secure university housing for students, but remains unable to contain the large number of people moving to the area. “The university along with aid organizations has secured 20 homes that could fit 300 students,” Dr. Abdul Aziz al-Daghim said, speaking about the situation in Azaz.

In Marea, where the medical school is located, the college secured a large housing building which was equipped, and housing is offered to student at 15 USD (USD = 575 SYP) per semester, as confirmed to Enab Baladi by Hima, who also points out that a number students rent homes at their own expense.

Funding an Obstacle to Development

“The biggest problem that is hindering the university process is the problem of funding,” says Dr. Abdul Aziz al-Daghim. “The university’s expenses are large, and students’ fees only meet about 70 percent of these expenses at most.”

Al-Daghim added, “There are some donor organizations that provide support such as Education Without Borders, which offers modest support of up to $300,000 US a year. However, they do not cover large expenses, especially if we consider that Aleppo’s monthly spending before moving to the northern countryside of Aleppo ranged between 87 and 90 thousand US dollars.”

The size of this spending may not seem large, with some 4,000 to 5,000 students, according to Dr. Mazen al-Saud, while the teaching staff exceeds 100 people among the Master’s and PhD holders in different colleges, with another 100 in administrative staff.

Free Aleppo University tuition fees range from US $50 to US $75 for institutes, and up to US $250 per year for medical students, $225 for dental students, $200 for engineering students, while falling below $125 for students in other departments.

Despite the fact that these tuition fees do not seem huge compared to private universities, many students are unable to pay them, and this leads to delay in payment, including student Wael Jumaa, who confirmed to Enab Baladi that he has not yet been able to pay his university fees due to financial restrictions, fees which he considered “large.”

Hope, Yet an Ambiguous Future

The students Enab Baladi met with agree that the educational process at the Free Aleppo University is “decent” despite all the difficulties they face during their education.

Hamido, who joined the Free Aleppo University after circumstances forced her to leave the Aleppo University of the regime’s government six years ago, believes that the educational process in her college is going well today, with the support of the university administration and teachers.

Abdul Wahab Mohammad, a second-year student at the Faculty of Shari’a, agreed, describing the educational process and staff as “excellent.” He believed that the university’s positives are many, and that it is improving.

Dr. Abdul Aziz al-Daghim confirmed that “teaching staff at the faculty are former faculty members, and the new teachers have degrees from accredited universities, and have teaching experience.”

He added, “We have 45 PhD holders in the teaching staff at the Free Aleppo University, and about 80 have Master’s degrees.”

As for the study plan, it is taken from the University of Aleppo of the Ministry of Higher Education in the regime’s government, according to Dr. Mazen al-Saud. This, in his view, is “what distinguishes it,” as students can complete their education in the future within the main university.

While the future prospects of the Free Aleppo University remain ambiguous and shrouded in uncertainty, under the current political, military and economic circumstances, university students are creating their own prospects. Student Thaer Jumaa aspires to enter the labor market after graduating from the Institute of Computer Sciences, while Hima Hamido is optimistic about post-graduation.

“Hope is greater now than ever, because of the presence of specialized Syrian doctors. A medical student can finish their first six years of study, and then transfer to specialize according to their average,” Hima said to Enab Baladi. She added, “In the north, there are excellent hospitals, with excellent staff and equipment, and doctors who cooperate with us.”

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