Syria’s brain drain – another twist to the country’s crisis

The exodus of educated and skilled Syrians is increasingly depleting the country’s workforce and the quality of its health services, already strained by two years of conflict.

“The phenomenon is ongoing and growing,” said regional humanitarian coordinator Radhouane Nouicer. The flight of professionals has affected the bureaucracy, educational institutions and factories - but nowhere is the impact felt more than in the medical sector.

Late last year, the World Health Organization said all of the country’s nine psychiatrists and more than half the doctors in Homs had left the country. Clinics run by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are short of surgeons and other medical experts.

This month, as the Syrian conflict entered its third year, the number of refugees surpassed one million. Observers worry the “brain drain” will affect Syria’s long-term future.  

“These skills are much needed for rebuilding Syria tomorrow,” Nouicer told IRIN.  

While Syria has been affected by the departure of educated people for decades due to the lack of economic opportunities and political freedom, the conflict has increased the shortages of doctors, engineers, teachers and lawyers to unprecedented levels. 

“One of the most alarming features of the conflict has been the use of medical care as a tactic of war,” the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria wrote in a report this month. “Medical personnel and hospitals have been deliberately targeted and are treated by parties to the conflict as military objectives.” 

Many professionals have had difficulty getting visas to Europe and the Gulf states, and have instead ended up in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, where aid agencies are trying to make use of their skills through community mobilization and cash-for-work programmes in the camps’ schools and health centres. Others have decided to stay to try to address the needs in their country. 

IRIN spoke to highly skilled professionals both inside and outside Syria about the difficult choice they faced and the impacts of their decisions - both on themselves and their country.

Bayan*, civil engineer from Homs:

“I will never leave Syria because I have a vision for my country. We are working on building the future of Syria, so I have a responsibility to stay. I have asked my wife to leave because it’s not safe here, but she doesn’t want to go anywhere else either. She’s a teacher; I’m a civil engineer. I haven’t been to my office for almost two years. Instead, I’ve founded a group called the Free Syrian Engineers so that we can gather the competence of experts who are still inside Syria. Our group includes about 70 engineers in Homs, from all branches, electrical, civil, mechanical and computer engineers. 

“We’re organizing in order to work on whatever task comes up, from cleaning the streets to repairing electrical lines. We’re also working on studies on rebuilding Syria after the conflict. I know it sounds theoretical now, but it will be very important to be prepared when the time comes. Even though none of us is working in their normal jobs right now, there’s still a lot to do on the ground, in medical, relief or media work, for example. There’s a need for everything. Life is difficult, but I am happy to be here. There was a lot of work for me in Homs before the war, and there will be even more afterwards.”

Mohamed Alkhateb, 27, teacher from Palmyra:

“I used to teach English at a local school to children between six and 12. I was arrested in February 2012 and imprisoned for six months because I was an activist. In prison, they hit me so badly they broke my ribs. I left Syria right after they released me because I knew that if I stayed, they’d come for me again. The school has now been closed because of the shelling. Before the conflict, there were between 20 and 25 teachers in that school. About six of them joined the protest movement, and they’ve all left the country by now. It’s hard for the children. No classes, no learning. I feel sorry for them. 

“I’ve rented an apartment in Cairo that I am sharing with friends who are also refugees from Syria. I have managed to get an administrative job at a pilot training school, but it’s hard to get by. My salary is only US$200 a month, but I need $300-400 to survive. So my family has to send me some extra money. I really miss Syria, my city and my friends, but I cannot return. Life in Egypt is tough. I wanted could go to Europe, but no country would give us a visa. For the time being, I’m stuck.”

Anwar*, 44, professional football player from Latakia:

“I left Syria in 2012 simply because I couldn’t find a job. It had nothing to do with political reasons. I used to be a football player. Now I am working as a football coach in Dubai. It’s a good position, and people really respect me. I have never had a good job in Syria. That’s why I’ve spent a large part of my life abroad. In 2003, I was asked to return to Syria and work on a study on the state of football in the country, but that didn’t work out. Nobody listened to what I had to say.  

“I have tried to live in Syria, but I did not see any opportunities. There was no room for new ideas. There are many Syrians working in high positions abroad who were facing the same problems. It’s almost like they don’t want qualified people like us. However, I feel bad every day for not being there. I am very popular back home because of my football career, and people need something to be proud of. If I’d get any job, I’d go back tomorrow.” 

Abu Adnan*, 30, dentist from Deir-ez-Zor:

“I have thought a lot about moving to a different country. Everybody wants a peaceful life. I’m longing for simple things, taking a stroll or having coffee in the garden. I am a dentist, but I haven’t been able to work in my profession for over a year. My clinic was completely destroyed by the shelling. I love my work, and I miss it a lot. I specialized in bridges and partial dentures. My wife is also a dentist; she has taken refuge in a town outside of Deir-ez-Zor. Our one-year-old daughter is with her. 

“There used to be thousands of doctors in Deir-ez-Zor. Now, there are only about 10 of them left. I help out in a field clinic now, suturing wounds or giving injections. We often have to amputate limbs because we don’t have the means necessary to treat the injuries. I don’t think my future will be good. Everything is destroyed. It will take decades to rebuild Syria. My wife keeps begging me to take the family outside of Syria. She is very scared; she is crying all the time. Of course, I don’t want my daughter to grow up like this. But it’s not easy to leave the city you’ve grown up in.” 

Talal Hoshan, 49, judge from Hama Governorate:

“I left Syria because I wasn’t able to stand the regime’s war crimes any longer. I fled with my family right after the massacre in Qubair, a town near Hama, in June 2012. I saw the corpses of four children and two women, and it was clear they had been executed. As the local director of public prosecution, I had to examine the dead. While I was doing that, I cursed the regime under my breath because I had information that they were responsible. One soldier heard me and told me to keep quiet. The next day, I contacted the [rebel] Free Syrian Army. They helped us escape across the border to Turkey.

“We used to have a big, beautiful apartment. The one we’re renting in southern Turkey is much smaller. I have no job and no income. We’ve sold our car, and our friends are helping us out. We’re better off than most refugees, but I worry about my children. I have four girls and two boys, both of whom are very sick. They are suffering from a heart disease, and they haven’t seen a doctor for a long time. I would like to take my family to Sweden because they have a very advanced treatment for that disease there. I have called the Swedish consulate, but they refused to give us visas. I don’t care about myself, but my family really needs help. My children’s condition is getting worse every day.”

Dlshad Othman, 26, computer technician from Qamishli:

“I left Syria in December 2011. As a Kurd, I’ve always been critical of the regime. I used to work for an internet provider in Damascus, but they only gave me menial tasks, and my salary was bad. When the uprising started, I lost my job because of my political views. Then I joined an NGO in Damascus documenting violence against journalists. I was developing ways for activists to be safe online. 

“In October 2011, I gave an on-camera interview to a British journalist. He was arrested with the footage on his laptop. I was warned by a friend, and I escaped across the border to Lebanon because I knew the security forces were looking for me. It was easy for me to find a job in the US and get a visa. I was lucky because there are a lot of opportunities for people with computer skills. 

“I don’t miss Syria at all because there was no respect, no job security, no professionalism in the work world. Here in Washington, it’s different. As a professional, I am happy here. I have a great job, a good income, insurance. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back. Here, I can actually do something: I am working for an NGO advocating internet freedom, not only in Syria, but everywhere in the world. I can also help out my family financially.

“What do I imagine my future to be like? I don’t see my future right now. That part of my life is still missing. I hope I will find the answer to that question someday.”

*not a real name