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Osaka student fights for Syrians’ right to study in safety in Japan

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

Dates matter in war, and peace.

On Jan. 15, 2013, on the first day of exams at Aleppo University in northern Syria, more than 80 students were killed and dozens injured in a missile attack on the university.

Two months later on March 28, mortar bombs killed 15 students sitting down to lunch in a canteen in Damascus University.

By that stage Syria’s civil war was entering its third year.

At some unspecified date in 2013, the Japanese government quietly halted a scholarship program that placed a handful of graduate students from Syria in universities throughout Japan.

The same year, on Sept. 12, Yahya Almasri, 29, a graduate of Damascus University, arrived in Osaka from Syria. During college in Damascus he had worked at the Canadian Embassy and had befriended some Japanese in the city. Upon graduation Almasri knew that he wanted to continue his studies, but preferably in peace and safety. After consulting his contacts, he decided on Japan.

On arriving in Japan Almasri put his savings to work and enrolled in a language college where he studied Japanese for a year, before going on to pursue graduate studies in Osaka University, where he is now a doctoral candidate at the Osaka School of International Public Policy.

Knocking at the door

While gaining refugee status is almost impossible in Japan — 20 refugees from nearly 20,000 applications were granted asylum in 2017 — what many people might not know is that Japan provides educational and financial assistance to hundreds of graduate students every year from more than 150 countries and territories, including Afghanistan and Syria, through scholarship programs.

When Almasri discovered that the door to Syrian students had been shut, he wanted to do something.

“I thought, ‘OK, you don’t want to accept refugees, but you’re even unwilling or reluctant to accept students?” he says. “I could not understand this logic.”

At the same time, however, Almasri saw an avenue for activism. As he acknowledged, accepting more refugees is a policy decision loaded with political and cultural factors, but lobbying the government on behalf of Syrian students “was more feasible than lobbying to resettle Syrian refugees in Japan.”

Almasri was also motivated by the hope that peace will return to his homeland. When it comes, and in what shape and at what cost, is a battle that is still being waged, but Syria will desperately need an educated and skilled workforce to help rebuild the nation. As Almasri points out, 80 percent of the country’s infrastructure is in ruins after more than seven years of war.

“I thought Japan is the perfect place to learn about reconstruction considering the fact that Japan rose from the ashes following World War II,” he says. “I thought they (Syrian students) could learn a lot from Japan.”

Once Almasri had settled on a plan of action, he then needed to pull in support from all corners.

Almost immediately he came up against a brick wall from an unexpected source: friends and colleagues. Perhaps it was experience tempered with cynicism that led to their pessimism, but Almasri recalled their unenthusiastic reception.

“Their initial reaction was: ‘Focus on your studies instead of wasting your time. Nothing will change,'” Almasri says.

But Almasri is nothing if not resilient, a quality he says he is common to Syrians. So, he did two things: He politely ignored his colleagues’ advice and, in a manner of speaking, he followed it.

Japan’s commitment — or lack thereof — to Syrian students became his study.

Judging Japan

From late 2015 onward, Almasri pulled together as much data as he could on what Group of Seven countries — of which Japan is one — and other countries were doing to support Syrian students. His intention was never to set out to shame Japan, he says, which has been a considerable donor to Syria, but rather to base his case on a comparative analysis.

As Almasri diplomatically puts it, “Japan observes its counterparts in the West and sees how they deal with situations.”

The response between the West and Japan to the plight of Syrian students, just as it was with the refugee crisis, was markedly different.

Between 2012 and 2015, Germany provided more than 420 scholarships to Syrian students. A consortium of 80 mainly U.S.-based colleges banded together to provide 391 scholarships for Syrian students. Even Hungary, which has been one of Europe’s most vocal opponents of refugee resettlement, stepped up and granted 50 scholarships to students of Damascus University, Almasri’s alma mater.

Almasri compiled the international responses along with data about the crisis in Syrian education triggered by the war — more than 4,000 schools are off limits to students and 2.6 million Syrian children are unable to attend school — as well as a survey of the challenges for self-financing Syrian students in Japan. In the end, he had a succinct PowerPoint presentation; the next, vital step was getting it in front of the people who could affect change.

A breakthrough came when Al-Masri was invited to present at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, an influential and well-connected Tokyo-based NGO, which had organized a study session on the “Possibilities of Receiving Syrian Students” in March 2016.

“I think people (in attendance) were surprised by Japan’s response,” Almasri said.

Fast-forward a few months later and in May 2016, the same month Japan hosted global leaders at the G7 summit in Mie Prefecture, the government announced a new scholarship program that would assist 150 postgraduate students over a five-year period. The Japan International Cooperation Agency would provide scholarships to 20 Syrian “refugee students” — those living in Lebanon and Jordan — a year over a five-year period from 2017.

Under the education ministry, another 50 Syrian students will be granted scholarships over the same time period.

Almasri, though, is at pains to point out he was but one part of a wider team of a team of concerned Syrians and Japanese calling on “Japanese policymakers to reopen doors for Syrian students.”

Life in Syria, life in Japan

One thing that hasn’t stopped for Almasri since his presentation at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation is speaking: He’s developed a huge network of contacts and “no” is not really a part of his vocabulary. It also helps that he speaks Osaka-ben, the local dialect in his adopted city, as well as fluent English.

In the past three years he has done more than 65 presentations at Rotary Clubs — he is a recipient of Rotary Club funding — as well as high schools, elementary schools, universities and model U.N. symposiums.

Almasri has also made an effort to go beyond the usual stops in the speaking circuit: He’s met and talked to hearing-impaired audiences as well as students with autism and disabilities.

By and large, Almasri focuses on the Syrian refugee crisis, but he also covers Syrian culture and the consequences of war.

Before the war, life in Damascus was ordinary for Almasri. He comes from a middle-class background. Growing up, he played with Palestinians and Armenians and children of different faiths; he watched anime and played soccer. At university and while working at the Canadian Embassy, he developed a wide circle of international friends.

“We did not have this sectarian mindset,” Almasri says, referring to the current situation in his country. “Of course I do miss my family, I do miss Syria, friends and relatives. I think all Syrians abroad have anxiety and stress and many of them have built up a reserve of resilience to overcome hardship.”

As in Syria, Almasri has developed a wide circle of friends in Japan.

“The more you learn Japanese, the more friends you get — this is the key to integration.”

He’s also developed a strong liking for tempura and sashimi. “We don’t have a sashimi culture,” Almasri says, rather deadpan.

Food, which is never far from the lips in Japan, either in conversation or in terms of meal times, also offers a poignant reminder of the life he left behind.

As much as Almasri enjoyed his first plate of sashimi, he avoids sharing pictures on social media when he considers the plight of Syrians.

“I really felt sorry for my fellow Syrians — for example, who cannot find food, he says. “I felt that I was way more privileged and maybe I don’t really deserve this. I felt a sympathy for those trapped Syrians or those starving Syrians that I was enjoying life here. I had this all the time in the back of my mind.”

Indeed, this is a feeling that never dissipates, he acknowledges.

Almasri is also aware that for most people he meets in Japan, it’s probably the first time they’ve ever met a Syrian, and what they do know of the country is most likely from brief snippets of news about a complicated and tragic war.

In the space of five years, Almasri says he’s developed a “considerable sense of belonging to Japan and its people. It’s my second home and I care about it and miss it every time I go abroad.”

He’s also conscious of what he can give to society here.

“I feel like sometimes we (foreign residents) benefit from Japan but it’s not the other way round. So that’s why I stress social contributions, for example through my presentations with different groups, or meeting with the hearing-impaired group, where I learned some sign language.”

Almasri’s not afraid to pitch his case, as he did to the Japanese government, but equally he’s more than willing to pitch in and give back.

The war in numbers

Now in its eighth year, the civil war has claimed the lives of between 400,000 and 470,000 Syrians. Half of Syria’s 23 million people have fled the country or are internally displaced.

According to the UNHCR, the conflict has produced more than 5.6 million refugees, the vast majority of whom are living in neighboring countries. More than 6 million Syrians have been internally displaced, with many having had to move more than once.

Before the war, Syria had 20,000 schools, but only 11,000 are now functioning, according to UNICEF. An estimated 97 percent of Syrian children were enrolled in primary school before 2011. However, a generation of Syrians have grown up knowing nothing but war.

According to the Institute of International Education, in 2015 there were an estimated 90,000 to 110,000 Syrian refugees who had been unable to attend higher-level education despite qualifying for it.

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