A Letter from Idomeni: America's Higher Ed Must Respond to the Reality of Syria's Permanent Refugees

Dear Colleagues:

I am back in Thessaloniki after a day at the unplanned refugee camp at Idomeni, Greece. The camp hugs the concertina wire fence that had been hastily assembled when Macedonia, just on the other side, and like much of the rest of Europe, decided to close its borders to waves of refugees from the war in Syria and those fleeing violence and oppression in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq.

I was there to talk with young Syrians who were trapped in the camp. One conversation with a young woman named Zeina (not her real name) affected me deeply. Of Kurdish origin from the town of Afrin she had been studying physical sciences at Tishreen University in the relatively safe seaside town of Latakia, where Russian forces have a major base.

She had to abandon Syria when her family became a target of the government because her brother deserted. She, her brothers, sisters and parents snuck across the border to Turkey. She worked for a year in a sweatshop, often 70 hours a week, until she had the money to pay smugglers to take her across a narrow slip of sea to the Greek island of Lesbos. From there she traveled to Idomeni in hopes of reaching a sister in Austria. But now she was stuck, unable to go forward and with nowhere to return - Turkey meant slavery-like conditions; Syria, death. She told us she would return to school if she could, especially if it meant a chance to help her family, but in that moment it seemed so unlikely.

As I looked out over the camp, which represents a failure of Europe and Europeans to respond in a legal and humane fashion to a predictable movement of humanity, I couldn't help but conclude I was seeing something new in the worst humanitarian catastrophe of our generation: the permanent displacement of millions of Syrians. The war in Syria, like wars in the Middle East in the past, isn't just about the regime in Damascus. It's about who will be allowed to live in Syria when it's done. Most of the refugees outside its borders will not be allowed back in. History here is prologue: the same thing happened to the Armenians in 1922 when, in the aftermath of genocide, Turkey banned their return and again in 1948 when the violent creation of Israel displaced the Palestinians.

The 10,000 people at Idomeni are a tiny fraction of those who will be unable or unwilling to return to their homeland, even if the crisis abates. The UN estimates that there are nearly 5 million Syrian refugees, mostly living in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan - and now Europe. Some will go home. In fact some have already gone back. Yet if only 25% of them were to remain outside of Syria, it would mean over a million people for whom the world would need to find a permanent home.

A new massive Syrian diaspora is at hand. The choice that we must make as educators and those who support education is whether to help those young people who are capable of benefiting from higher education and want to go back to school do so, or stand by and watch the formation of an impoverished, angry, politically vulnerable and exploitable mass of young people take shape in ghettos in the cities of the Middle East and Europe.

I'm here in Greece to explore ways that we in the US can start to work with our colleagues throughout the Eastern Mediterranean to build new opportunities for these young people to study and learn.

All of our colleagues I've met on this mission are eager to help these young people adjust to their new lives beyond their homelands and grow into true leaders of the Syrian diaspora. They understand the value of education, just like the young Syrians like Zeina we met, in providing a future of opportunity; they also know that educated young men and women can provide the critical link between newcomers and the people and places where they have found refuge.

We are as responsible for these young people as we are for the students we see in our classrooms day after day.