14 March 2019

Dutch and Syrian researchers work together on NWO-funded project "Refugees in science"

"Syria allows us to better understand other wars"

The NWO-funded project “Refugees in science” connects refugees with a background in academics with Dutch researchers for a year. Dr Uğur Ümit Üngör (Political History) and Syrian refugee Ali Aljasem will, in the context of this project, research paramilitarism among Syrian students. This is part of a larger oral history project, in which conversations with Syrians over a long period of time are transcribed. Üngör: "Syria offers us, unfortunately, many opportunities to learn more about all kinds of issues around (civil) wars".

Dr. Ugur Ümit Üngör. Foto Jussi Puikkonen/KNAW
Dr Ugur Ümit Üngör. Photograph by Jussi Puikkonen/KNAW

Paramilitarism

“One of the reasons we got support of NWO is because Ali and I already established a strong collaboration before”, according to Uğur. Ali agrees: “Uğur already researched paramilitarism, especially in Syria, and for my Masters thesis I examined the National Union of Syrian Students. This is a paramilitary student group at the university of Allepo, who spied and reported on students like me, who participated in the revolution. There was common ground in our research, and the NWO-fund enabled us to make this collaboration official and systematise it”. 

"If you want to understand the Syrian war, you have to ask Syrians themselves".

Syria as a reflection of other wars

Üngör: “I was adamant that if you want to understand the Syrian war, you have to ask Syrians themselves. They are the eyewitnesses and victims of paramilitarism, or they or a family member were involved themselves. For my research it was beneficial that Ali lived in Aleppo and knows the city like the back of his hand. He has the connections and is therefore able to do interviews with the people involved. If you want to know how conflicts come to rise, then you have to interview people over a certain amount of time, so you can track the social-psychological processes. The conclusions you can draw from this transcend Syria, because the same questions are asked about the Rwandan war, for instance. If a Syrian survivor crawls his way out of a mass grave, he feels the same thing as a Bosnian who experienced the same. If you hear harrowing stories like these all the time, it gets to you after a while. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to expand my research about the Syrian war with other researchers and interviewers. Because emotionally it was too big of a burden to carry alone".

If you hear harrowing stories like these all the time, it gets to you after a while. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to expand my research about the Syrian war with other researchers and interviewers. Because emotionally it was too big of a burden to carry alone.
Dr. Ugur Ümit Üngör. Foto Jussi Puikkonen/KNAW

The importance of Syrian researchers

“For the interviews with eyewitnesses I chose to use Syrian researchers, as they have the necessary background knowledge, language skills, and know the regional dialects and jargon. I could have used a Dutch student from Hilversum for this project, but they would have to learn Arabic, get to know the society and jargon. This would take years, so you can better use people who already have the rich ethnographic knowledge and teach them the conceptual, theoretical and intellectual skills present in academia. That is much easier and not only good for our research field, but also for the people themselves. Learning Syrians those skills is important, because higher education in Syria was lacking in comparison to here.”

Making a difference

Ali Aljasem
Ali Aljasem

Ali also attests to this: “When I did my masters here in Utrecht (Conflict Studies and Human Rights), I saw how far removed the Syrian university qualitatively was from international universities. I hope that the current generation of Syrian students will close the gap by studying here.” Üngör recognizes the positive effect of our educational system on Syrian refugees: “Ali’s generation, and those after him, will make the difference for Syria”. This isn’t fully without danger, according to Üngör, “Because of this research project, Ali can’t safely go back to Syria. He would be imprisoned. Research like this is not without risks”. 

I see it as a moral obligation to show the reality of Syria, but it also brings up painful memories

The moral obligation of war research

This does not hold back Ali: “I feel this research is a necessity. If Assad’s regimes survives everything, then we have failed morally and ethically. Then we couldn’t convince people of the importance of our research on all the crimes and sacrifices that were committed. I see it as a moral obligation to show the reality of Syria, but it also brings up painful memories. But you shouldn’t hide behind your fears because you are afraid to go up against the regime. With great risk comes great reward”. According to Üngör this is the mentality of a lot of Syrians: “They think we should learn to understand this important cultural trauma in their shared history, if they want to proceed as a society. They have to go on together, after the last shots have been fired.”