Etienne Kallos

This Is What the Syrian Brain Drain Looks Like


The Fuller Project for International Reporting reports on women in foreign affairs and women's rights.

Lava Mouslem, a 24-year-old Syrian singer, was packing two suitcases with all her possessions when we met her in July. She had decided overnight to travel alone from western Turkey to Greece by boat, at any cost.

The war in Syria has driven Mouslem and 4 million others out of the country. About 2 million are now in Turkey, and more than 200,000 have sought asylum in Europe in the past year. Among these are some of Syria’s most talented youth.

When the revolution came to Aleppo, Syria, where Mouslem was born and studied, she joined the protesters, making anti-Assad fliers in the university copy rooms at night. Bombs at her back, she fled to her parents' home in Kobane. Mouslem then dodged dogs and armed border guards to cross illegally into Turkey to Gaziantep, an industrial city where Syrians make up an estimated 20% of the population. There, she launched her singing career on a score of ancient Kurdish melodies and songs composed by her husband. Months later, the Islamic State infiltrated Kobane, destroying her parents’ home and neighborhood.

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At the Big Chefs restaurant in the Gaziantep Forum Mall, Syrians gather around wicker tables, chain smoking and sipping Turkish coffee. For many among this collection of enterprising youth, who work as polyglot fixers, nonprofit founders, and journalists for underground newspapers, the hope of returning and rebuilding Syria is gone. Discussion of going to Europe—who went, how much they paid, which smuggler they used, and what country is most likely to give asylum–is constant.

In Gaziantep, Mouslem worked 20 hours a day as a radio jockey for Syrian opposition radio, solo-producing two shows and making only $600 a month. Even as her fan base grew, she struggled to make her monthly rent of $225. And when the Turks closed their southern border in March, she knew there was no way back to Aleppo.

The environment for independent women like Mouslem is deteriorating in Syria, due to pervasive violence, increasing militancy, and radical Islamist fighting groups like ISIS and Jabat al-Nusra that enforce sharia law and strict codes of behavior and dress for women. Much of the country's educated population has fled for better opportunities.

Although the full toll of Syria’s brain drain is yet to become clear, a study last year of the medical corps showed that 15,000 doctors had fled, half the number of certified doctors in the country, stripping away decades of experience and crippling the health-care system. And as the war drags on, and refugees settle into their new lives abroad, the chances that they will return diminish.

The reconstruction of the region depends in great part on supporting the youth. While the humanitarian focus is on essentials including food, shelter, healthcare and education, support for artists and cultural organizations can help provide some glue for a displaced, uprooted community that shares countless loses.

Civil society development can also help keep the hope for and connection to Syria strong. Although civil society was marginal before the war in Syria, now, citizens across the country and in border regions are starting schools, kitchens, shelters and democracy forums. Yet without a strong legacy of non-governmental work in their homeland, many of these social entrepreneurs lack experience, and their initiatives remain resource-starved.

Programs that provide training and funding can inspire enterprising youth to stay in Turkey and the Levant region, grow their skills and improve the lives of millions. The Dutch nonprofit SPARK provides vocational training for Syrians including in project management. The Institute for Inclusive Security helps Syrian women with diverse backgrounds build their advocacy and mobilization skills, and also links them to a global network of women peace-builders.

For Mouslem, the Syrian war forced her to drop her course of studies in mechanical engineering, opening the door to a career in performance arts, something she’d never considered. S he traveled by sea to Greece and then by foot to Germany. The notebook Mouslem stashed in her suitcase is full of her husband’s new refrains. Now in a processing center for asylum-seekers, she rehearses for her hoped-for European debut.

Click here for a short video featuring Mouslem.

Xanthe Ackerman (@XAckerman) is the executive director of the Fuller Project for International Reporting. Aslihan Unaldi (@AslihanUnaldi) is a writer, director and producer of a number of films, including the forthcoming Inbetween Nowhere, in which Mouslem appears.

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