Long known as an enterprising people, Syrians are renowned as merchants, craftsmen and tradesmen, with a highly skilled workforce. Syrian educational attainment levels have historically been among the highest in the region. While the crisis has shut the door to many opportunities on Syrian young people, that enterprising spirit is engrained in the Syrian psyche and has not been extinguished.
Syrians are used to working under conditions of hardship. As the subject of various international sanctions over the course of several decades, the Syrian business community has proven incredibly resilient. Our colleague and executive director of the Syrian Economic Forum (SEF) Tammam Al Baroudi, for example, manufactured sophisticated diamond-cutting blades in the industrial heartland of Aleppo which could not be imported. As the old adage goes, diamonds are indeed formed under intense pressure.
There is a growing realization within the international community that one of the best ways to address the refugee crisis, short of some political or military resolution, is through developmental approaches that empower refugees to provide for their own livelihoods and contribute economically to host communities. This requires harnessing the latent ingenuity of the Syrian people as a source of innovation. It is happening, but there is so much more to be done.
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An example of this is when the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) and SEF developed a course that combines entrepreneurship with civics 101. Taught by Syrian university professors, the course has inspired thousands of young people to develop enterprise solutions to the challenges in their communities.
Around half the courses were held in Kilis, Turkey, and the other half inside Syria in Aleppo and Idlib. The University of Aleppo has now adopted this as part of its first year curriculum and is teaching it to students in campuses operating in the Aleppo countryside.
We are now also taking the course online to reach young Syrians wherever they are. CIPE and SEF are adapting and expanding the course for online instruction via a new e-learning platform called Ta'alum ("Learning"). Meanwhile, organizations like the Dutch NGO SPARK are leading the charge when it comes to expanding Syrian access to higher education.