Overwhelmed by worries about family and friends and his own financial difficulties, Husam Helmi – a 32 year-old Syrian studying for a PhD in Economics and Finance at Brunel University – is close to tears as he talks about the pressures of studying many miles from home at a time when his country is tearing itself apart.
“It’s been very tough for me. I’ve had so much to do, and there’s been bad news from Syria. Last week, my cousins and my wife’s cousins were killed,” he says.
A United Nations report published in January estimated that as many 60,000 people have died in Syria since the conflict there erupted in 2011. That number was revised to 70,000 this month; with UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon warning that as “the Security Council stands on the sidelines” the country is “self-destructing”.
As well as increasing fears about the safety of family and friends back home, the war has left Mr Helmi and his compatriots who are also studying in the UK struggling to support themselves financially.
Unable to get access to his funding from Syria due to the war and the subsequent closure of the country’s embassy in London, Mr Helmi has not been able to pay his tuition fees. With a wife and a two-year old daughter to support, he has had relied on his savings and been forced to take up part-time work at a college to support himself. He says he was promised some teaching work at Brunel, but that failed to materialise. His hours at the college have also been cut.
“I’m trying my best. I’m investing my time and trying to study, but it’s very difficult,” he sounds emotionally worn out as he speaks.
Earlier this year The Mancunion told the story of a number of Syrian students who were struggling to fund their “daily lives” because of the conflict. We heard from people who felt let down by their university, and from a student at the University of Salford who had received a letter from their institution warning them that they could not “graduate or complete their studies” unless fees amounting to £10,140 were paid.
Following a campaign led by the National Union of Students and coverage in the national press, support for Syrian students has been more forthcoming; though the Coalition government have failed to directly intervene to support those caught up in the crisis, but say they are examining how they can offer support to Syrians. A statement published in January from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills said that: “We recommend that universities and scholarship awarding bodies use their own discretion over fees.”
A number of universities – including Salford and Brunel – have agreed to defer the payment of fees to a later date; allowing those affected by the Syria crisis to continue their studies, but not to graduate until the fees are paid. Other universities have waived fees entirely.
For students like Mr Helmi – who are studying in the UK under the terms of the Higher Education Capacity Building Project – the British Council offer a hardship fund amounting to £2,000 for students affected by the war in Syria. After a long delay he was set to receive the money at the time of writing. He says that it will offer his family short-term relief, but little more.
“It will be good to have for a short time, but it’s not enough. Monthly we pay more than £1,200 for housing and living costs,” he explains, before stating that he feels that support from Brunel has been lacking.
“Brunel have done nothing to be honest. They promised a hardship loan, or something like this; but nothing has happened.”
In a statement, Brunel University insisted that they were sympathetic to the plight of Syrian students: “Syrian students come to Brunel on a variety of different schemes and we have offered advice and support on a case by case basis. Since the spring of last year, when the situation in Syria deteriorated, we have been referring our students to our International Hardship Fund, and in other cases have helped them to apply to the British Council’s hardship fund. We are very sympathetic to the plight of our Syrian students and will continue to provide assistance and support on an individual basis.”
Back home, having been forced to move from place to place to escape the bombing, Mr Helmi’s family have fled Daryya, a city south-west of Damascus which has seen a lot of fighting, and gone to Egypt.
“In my area, and in other ‘hot areas’; areas where there is support for the revolution, people have been killed at check points. People are killed for no other reason than because they come from my city,” he explains.
“My family took the decision to leave and save their lives. My brother was studying to be a doctor at the local hospital. He has sacrificed his studies to save his life.”
After finishing his PhD, Mr Helmi had wanted to return home to help his nation develop. He admits that this is now impossible given the civil war. To highlight this point, his home university in Aleppo was bombed in January. 87 people were killed and many more were injured.
“My ambition was to finish my PhD and to use all my experience from here in the UK to develop my country: to make better universities, to improve the education system.
“Now everything has changed. Everything has become harder. I’m still ambitious about putting some effort into the education system, but it’s tricky. It’s more dangerous.”