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Displaced Syrian scholars enroll at Brown

University accepts candidates for master’s of public health, modern culture and media

This fall, two Syrian scholars selected through the University’s program to host displaced scholars and students began graduate programs at Brown. Khaled Almilaji GS is seeking a master’s in public health, and Diana Kasem GS is pursuing a master’s in modern culture and media.

The two join Tarek — whose name has been changed and field of study withheld to protect his identity — who came to Brown in early 2016 on a yearlong fellowship from the Institute for International Education, a group with which Brown has collaborated to identify displaced Syrian scholars interested in pursuing their careers abroad.

The University Response Committee to Host Displaced Scholars and Students has learned that it is very important when selecting scholars to ensure there is a good disciplinary fit with the departments they are placed in, said Marisa Quinn, chief of staff to the provost and a member of the committee. With three scholars already placed, she said the University is “not actively looking for additional placements, but we’re also open if something comes along and there seems to be a good fit in terms of scholarly connections.”

A doctor from Aleppo

Almilaji is a doctor by training. Born in Aleppo, Syria, he got his doctorate of medicine there in 2006 and began an ear, nose and throat residency program in the coastal city of Latakia in 2008. He planned to continue his residency in Stuttgart, Germany in 2011, but as war broke out in his country, he felt that he had to stay. Almilaji was arrested on Sept. 9, 2011 for working at secret makeshift hospitals in homes and basements to aid protestors. He was imprisoned for six months.

After his release, Almilaji moved to the Syrian border of Turkey, where he provided medical care to Syrians — many of whom he said could not go to regime hospitals for fear of being arrested or killed. Soon, he began to run the health office of a Saudi charity supporting Syrians in Turkey. He was then asked by the humanitarian branch of the Syrian Opposition to establish and head its health department. Almilaji stressed that his work was purely humanitarian — independent from the politics of the group.

In response to a polio outbreak in Syria, Almilaji organized a vaccination campaign and managed 8,500 volunteers while coordinating with neighboring nations. The first round of vaccinations, which reached more than 1.25 million children in a week, successfully stopped the outbreak.

Almilaji also implemented a program funded by the International Organization for Migration to collect data on population flows, diseases and medical needs from researchers across regime-, opposition-, Kurdish- and ISIS-occupied areas. “We want to make sure that people inside Syria, whoever they are,” have at least their basic health needs met, he said.

In Turkey, Almilaji worked with Annie Sparrow, who is married to Kenneth Roth ’77 LHD’11 hon. P’12, the executive director of Human Rights Watch and a Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs board member. Roth, who has served as an informal advisor to Brown in the program to support displaced scholars, passed Almilaji’s resume to Provost Richard Locke P’17, whose office oversees the effort. Following input from the University Response Committee to Host Displaced Scholars and Students and the School of Public Health’s review, he was accepted to the MPH program.

Almilaji said that he wanted to come to Brown in order to improve his skills and ability to analyze data for his work. “I can help decision makers … (with) how to deal with their limited resources to deliver the maximum services and benefit for the people,” Almilaji said. The most important part of his studies is their practical application when he returns to Syria, he added.

Brown “is a place where if you want to study, you can have everything you need,” Almilaji said. He described the research environment as “amazing.”

In addition to studying public health, Almilaji said that in the United States, he has had the opportunity to learn about democracy — something that he hopes Syria will be able to achieve. “This is an environment and a place (where) I can really learn how people practice — even in their daily lives, not only in the elections — the meaning of listening to each other, accepting each other, accepting the others. You are not always correct, and you are not always wrong,” he said. “You have to accept everybody, you have to accept all these different opinions and you have always to figure out how to reflect or how to represent the majority of the people in your country in a way that is suitable for everybody, not only for the majority.”

While in Providence, Almilaji is still the chairman of the Canadian International Medical Relief Organization, a nongovernmental organization he established with other Syrian and Canadian medical experts, and he continues to work with colleagues across Syria. When he finishes his degree, he plans to return to Syria or Turkey and continue his education, probably through online courses, he said.

An artist and cinematographer

Kasem is an artist: She has a bachelor’s degree in English literature as well as a master’s degree in art history with a specialization in cinema. Among other artistic achievements, she wrote and directed “Normal … Yesterday …,” an experimental film that was screened at international festivals on four continents.

After returning to Syria from getting her master’s degree in Belarus, she worked in film and theater and lectured on the literature of drama at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus. As tensions built across the country, Kasem was forced to leave Damascus. She moved to Latakia, where she worked on 7Gates, an arts and culture website that she founded.

While in Latakia, Kasem learned that Jusoor, an NGO created by Syrian expatriates to support the country’s development, had a graduate scholarship program. She applied and received a 100 Syrian Women, 10,000 Syrian Lives scholarship. Jusoor is partnered with the IIE, which sent Kasem’s application to the University. She was offered a spot as a graduate student in the MCM department in May.

So far, Kasem has found studying in the United States conducive to her work. “I like the variety here,” she said, recalling a recent trip to New York City. It’s “an international place, which is a very rich place for artists.”

She has been challenged by her classes, which are mainly about cinema, and has resolved to do as well as she can. While she said it has been difficult to work as quickly as her peers, she is confident she will improve with time. “Here most people — not to say all — are very kind and helpful. So for me, this is very helpful, and I’m hopeful for the future,” she added.

“I’m very happy to be (at) Brown and very proud. It is a really suitable environment for any artist to be creative,” Kasem said. “They give you the tools, techniques. All I (have to do) is just work. And this is what I need — a peaceful and rich environment.”

While at Brown, Kasem still works on her website with the help of volunteers, artists and writers. When she finishes her degree, she hopes to stay in the United States to complete a PhD.

A teacher new to the open curriculum

In early 2016, Tarek began what was supposed to be a yearlong program. But the fellowship and Brown’s offer have been extended by a year to December 2017, and Tarek is teaching a course as well as conducting research for a book this semester.

Among the aspects of Brown’s academic life new to Tarek, teaching in the open curriculum has stood out to him as unique. Teaching students from different academic backgrounds has been challenging, and the open curriculum is “demanding in the sense that you have to adapt to make the contents of your course accessible to everyone,” he said.

At Brown, Tarek feels that he exists in an academic environment and can truly work as a scholar. “I feel like in order to fit in (at Brown), you have to produce. I’m enjoying doing that ­— there’s a lot of pressure, and it’s good,” he said. “I think it’s something in the mentality here. You’re obsessed (with) your work.”

Tarek said he feels that he is a part of the Brown community and has made a lot of friends. He is grateful for the support he received adjusting to Brown, as well as in applying for permanent teaching positions at schools across the United States, he added. Tarek said that he hopes to stay in New England so that he does not have to start over in a new place and can stay close to the friends he has made.


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