Guest post by Emma Christie, Marketing Officer for the Journal of Interrupted Studies.

Abdulkafi Alhamdo holds a professorship in English at the University of Aleppo. He and his family – he is married and has a six-month-old daughter – currently reside in the city of Aleppo. Speaking with BBC Newsnight reporter Kirsty Wark, he describes daily terror and fear of loss. He spends each day’s teaching stricken with worry about his family’s wellbeing, as they worry about his. In the clip, the gulf between this life, in which education and employment have become life-threatening, and the programme’s glossy newsroom is uncomfortably obvious. Amid daily reports of air strikes on hospitals and gut-wrenching images, from Aylan Kurdi, pictured drowned on a Turkish beach, to 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, who survived a bomb blast but whose brother Ali did not, Wark’s query of “How dangerous is it for you to get to university each day?” rings hollow. How can this suffering be quantified?

Like any metropolis, Aleppo was once home to professionals and academics. Syrian universities once hosted prolific intellectual circles. But in Aleppo, where 28 of the remaining University departments have only one faculty member (many have zero), many scholars have been forced to weigh their sufferings. Since 2011 Alhamdo and his peers have been faced with a choice: either to remain, in constant danger, or to leave their intellectual life and their life’s work behind for a world in which only 1% of refugees have access to higher education. Often, these prospects are chosen over continued residence in Syria and other warzones. As poet Warsan Shire wrote so powerfully, “No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” Alhamdo has chosen to remain: “I have to stay here. I will not leave you in the future to think that I left, that I ran away…” But his decision is excruciating, especially, he says, when he thinks of his small daughter.

I came across this footage by chance, but Alhamdo’s story is a familiar one. A friend volunteering in the Filippiada camp in Northern Greece recently expressed her sorrow at the number of residents she encountered whose flight meant the indefinite suspension of their higher education. A few days later, Najeeb, a volunteer I met at a fundraiser, told me about his plans to begin a Masters in Communications and Information Engineering at the University of Warwick. He had been several years into a similar programme at the University of Aleppo, before being forced to flee in 2015. Nevertheless, despite the universality of such experiences, the psychological impact of the loss of educational opportunities upon flight is an issue that receives relatively little attention. The specific issue of interrupted studies, and the exacerbated sense of hopelessness that comes with their forced abandonment, is often overshadowed by other horrors.

The Journal of Interrupted Studies, a new academic journal founded in Oxford by Paul Ostwald, Mark Barclay and Geri della Rocca de Candal, aims to reinstate a focus on these highly personal narratives of vocational loss into a global discussion of the migrant crisis (or indeed crises) by providing a forum for publication that specifically serves the displaced. A primary problem facing displaced professionals and academics is their media representation. Coverage often depicts the unprecedented levels of migration in recent years as a mass casualty and a shared suffering, symbolised by images of traumatised children, who inspire instinctive but practically limited empathy. Viewers may claim sympathy with victims of the crisis, yet rarely see more than their victimhood.

Depictions can, moreover, be overtly reductive. The German television talk show Menschen bei Maischberger’s coverage of the migrant crisis is one of many examples. In one episode, a panel of speakers featured only one refugee. This speaker was continually referred to by his first name by two German panellists, instead of by a surname or formal title. They also seemed to speak across him as if he were not there. ‘Kazim, Refugee’, as he was reductively termed, himself became a tokenistic and pitiable stand-in for a wider, more complex problem of which the panel seemed reluctant to address the nuance. This is an extreme but by no means anomalous example of the collapsing of the stories of the displaced, which denies the humanity of their subjects in allowing their stories to disappear under the label of ‘refugee’. By providing a forum in which the achievements of displaced academics assume pride of place, the Journal aims to begin to correct such one-dimensional representations.

The conventions of academic publishing constitute a second issue displaced academics face upon arrival in a host country, and a further area in which the Journal team hope to inspire change. In mainstream academic journals, research findings are inadmissible if they are not presented according to a fixed set of conventions. But, their homes and research facilities have been destroyed, most of the displaced are unable to meet these expectations. The Journal therefore accepts partial research to include a wider range of possible contributors who would not be able to publish elsewhere.

The twin issues of Eurocentrism and red tape are a further obstacle to those seeking further study and publication. When academics like Alhamdo and many contributors to the Journal arrive in Europe, they rightly expect to be able to publish and pursue further study. Currently, neither of these routes is easy or even feasible. Even Germany, a country now known for its engagement with migration issues, is a prime example. Displaced scholars generally cannot enrol formally in university courses: their legal status prevents them from being able to sit examinations and thereby gain qualifications. Refugee academics may audit classes via peer mentorship programmes, but this is a pale substitute for former tenured professors. Language also presents a hurdle. Without mastering academic German – or English – the chances of publication in most journals are slim, and further study is made more difficult. Anglocentric and Eurocentric biases must also be acknowledged. Najeeb notes, with dull frustration, how his qualifications gained in Syria were received dismissively on arrival in England. While academic qualifications gained at the University of Aleppo are theoretically on par with those received from London universities, in practice, the stigma of war, and an undercurrent of the same dehumanising attitude that pervades media representations, have delegitimized his academic degrees in the eyes of prospective employers. These xenophobic attitudes preclude any outlet for a new and powerful intellectual current, and thousands of academic futures are reduced to wasted potential. While universities, including Warwick and Bristol, offer scholarships for the displaced, spaces are limited, and full integration for asylum-seekers into European higher education still looks far off. It is no surprise that, in Filippiada camp, those whose studies have been interrupted express cynicism about their prospects.

The Journal of Interrupted Studies is one of several projects aiming to change these limited opportunities for displaced academics. Ahmad Mobayed, a contributor to Volume 1 of the Journal (pub. June 2016), went on from Jalal Khaddam School in Syria to complete a course entitled ‘Political Conflict Analysis’ with Kiron Open Higher Education, an organisation that combines online and offline learning to provide affordable and accessible opportunities for study. This has culminated in the production of the published article that appears in the Journal. Similarly, the Silent University in Germany bills itself as a ‘solidarity based knowledge exchange platform’ by the displaced for the displaced. Coursera, an online learning platform, has recently made most of their university-level courses available for free to refugees, while FutureLearn, Alison and the University of the People offer online courses accessible from anywhere. Clearly, broader recognition of and public interest in the specific issue of interrupted studies are on the rise.

Speaking on behalf of the Journal, however, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the challenges we face today as one of several new projects attempting to create new opportunities for the displaced. For example, the readership of academic journals is by its nature limited: the Journal’s more esoteric content may not permeate beyond a small – though international – intelligentsia. In this sense, the Journal’s ability to roll back the portrayal of the displaced as mere victims may only extend so far. However, it is not intended as a panacea for the above issues. Rather, the Journal as a collaborative project intends to draw attention to the fact that not enough is being done for displaced academics, or indeed for any of the displaced whose professional lives have been destroyed. Hence, our venture would be to convey the duty prosperous and peaceful countries have to allow refugees to set up new lives does not end upon their arrival in a safer host country. In so doing, the Journal aims to begin a dialogue around the needs of displaced academics, which will, it is hoped, percolate through to a wider, policy-shaping discussion. More directly, publication can help contributors on an individual basis within the academic community: recognition of their research by fellow academics makes the chances of further study more likely, and opportunities such as doctorate supervision much more accessible.

The Journal is not merely a ‘voice’ for disenfranchised and disadvantaged refugees, but rather aims to create a forum in which contributors, editors and all involved engage and interact on the level of shared interest and expertise. By restoring the focus on the quality of academic work and the findings of original research, and by contributing to the growing profile of similar projects, we hope to begin a conversation in which labels like ‘Kazim, Refugee’ are recognised as inadequate, and the public become aware that people like Alhamdo are not simply victims of circumstance, but academics and professionals with agency and enormous intellectual potential.

Note: Volume 1 of the Journal is available for free upon request. Email with a mailing address to receive a physical copy, or specifying your preference for an electronic copy (.pdf). For more information, get in touch via the Journal’s Facebook Page or Twitter (@InterruptedOx).

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