This Is What the Syrian Brain Drain Looks Like

4 minute read

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.

These Photos Show the Massive Scale of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Greece Migrants
Syrian and Afghan refugees warm themselves and dry their clothes around a fire after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, early on Oct. 7, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
migrant refugee greece
A migrant who recently arrived across the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey, watching a ferry in the port of Mytilene, Lesbos island, Greece, on Oct. 5, 2015.Zoltan Balogh—EPA
refugees migrants Lesbos Greek islands
An Afghan wades to the shore after arriving in an overloaded rubber dinghy on the coast near Skala Sikaminias, Lesbos island, Greece, Oct. 1, 2015. Filip Singer—EPA
Syrian refugees Lesbos Greece
Syrian refugees are covered with life blankets upon arriving to the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on Sept. 28, 2015. Aris Messinis—AFP/Getty Images
migrants refugees Lesbos
Migrants and refugees arrive on Sykamia beach, west of the port of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on Sept. 22, 2015. Iakovos Hatzistavrou—AFP/Getty Images
Croatia Migrants
Migrants and refugees board a train by climbing through the windows as they try to avoid a police barrier at the station in Tovarnik, Croatia, on Sept. 20, 2015. Manu Brabo—AP
Croatia Migrants
A Syrian refugee boy cries while he and his family try to board a train at the station in Tovarnik, Croatia, on Sept. 20, 2015.Manu Brabo—AP
migrants hungary serbia border clash
A migrant holds his child during a clash with Hungarian riot police at the Horgos border crossing in Serbia, on Sept. 16, 2015.Sergey Ponomarev—The New York Times/Redux
migrants serbia
Migrants sleep on a highway in front of a barrier at the border with Hungary near the village of Horgos, Serbia, on Sept. 16, 2015. Marko Djurica—Reuters
Hungary Serbia border
A wagon equipped with razor wire is placed at the border between Hungary and Serbia in Roszke, some 10 miles southeast from Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 14, 2015, to close the gap of the temporary border fence at the Horgos-Szeged railway line. Balazs Mohai—EPA
refugees migrants Lesbos
A refugee reacts from exhaustion while swimming towards the shore after a dinghy carrying Syrian and Afghan refugees before reaching the Greek island of Lesbos, on Sept. 13, 2015. Alkis Konstantinidis—Reuters
refugees migrants Hungary
Syrian people sleep inside a greenhouse at a makeshift camp for asylum seekers near Roszke, southern Hungary, on Sept. 13, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
Hungary Migrants refugees children
Syrian refugee Raed Alabdou, 24, holds his one-month old daughter Roa'a, while he and his wife hide in a field not to be seen by Hungarian policemen, after they crossed the Serbian-Hungarian border near Roszke, southern Hungary, on Sept. 11, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
refugees migrants macedonia
Migrants and refugees beg Macedonian police to allow passage to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia during a rainstorm, near the Greek village of Idomeni, on Sept. 10, 2015. Yannis Behrakis—Reuters
refugees migrants Morahalom Hungary
Migrants run over a motorway from a collection point that had been set up to transport people to camps in Morahalom, Hungary, on Sept. 9, 2015.Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
syrian refugee migrant hungary
A young Syrian man from Damascus tries to evade the Hungarian police by sneaking through a forest close to the Serbian border in Morahalom, Hungary, on Sept. 8, 2015. Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
refugees migrants Serbia
Migrants cross into Hungary as they walk over railroad tracks at the Serbian border with Hungary in Horgas, Serbia, on Sept. 7, 2015.Dan Kitwood— Getty Images
refugee migrant Lesbos
A refugee from Syria prays after arriving on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos aboard an inflatable dinghy across the Aegean Sea from Turkey, on Sept. 7, 2015. Angelos Tzortzinis—AFP/Getty Images
syrian refugees migrants greek coast guard
A migrant scrambles to climb back aboard a rubber dinghy full of his fellow Syrians as they try to cross from Turkey to the Greek islands on their way to claim asylum in the European Union, late on Sept. 6, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
syrian refugees migrants greek coast guard
A Syrian migrant aboard a flimsy rubber motorboat hands his one-month-old baby to Greek coast guards, who have arrived to rescue the boat full of migrants from dangerous waters near the border between Greece and Turkey, early on Sept. 7, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Greece Migrants
A young Syrian boy is wrapped with a thermal blanket as he arrives with others at the coast on a dinghy after crossing from Turkey, at the island of Lesbos, Greece, on Sept. 7, 2015.Petros Giannakouris—AP
Greece Migrants
Refugees and migrants wait to cross the border from the northern Greek village of Idomeni to southern Macedonia, on Sept. 7, 2015. Giannis Papanikos—AP
Migrants walk along rail tracks as they arrive to a collection point in the village of Roszke, Hungary
Migrants walk along rail tracks as they arrive to a collection point in the village of Roszke, Hungary, on Sept. 6, 2015.Marko Djurica—Reuters
migrant refugees train macedonia
Migrant families ride a train from Gevgelija to the Serbian border in Macedonia, on Sept. 4, 2015.Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
Italy Migrants refugees
Migrants crowd the bridge of the Norwegian Siem Pilot ship sailing along the Mediterranean sea, on Sept. 2, 2015. Gregorio Borgia—AP
Aylan Kurdi boy drowned
A Turkish gendarme carries the body of Alan Kurdi, 3, who drowned along with his brother Galip, 5, and their mother, in a failed attempt to sail to the Greek island of Kos, in the coastal town of Bodrum, Turkey, on Sept. 2, 2015.Reuters
Migrant crisis
Dozens of refugee families, mostly from Syria, camped near the Keleti train station in Budapest, Hungary on Sept. 2, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Migrant crisis
A Syrian migrant bids farewell to the Hungarian volunteers who welcomed him upon his arrival in the European Union in Szeged, Hungary on Aug. 30, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
refugees migrants Hungarian-Serbian border
A father of a migrants family is arrested by the local police near the village of Roszke on the Hungarian-Serbian border on Aug. 28, 2015.Attila Kisbender—AFP/Getty Images
Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke
Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke, on Aug. 27, 2015. Bernadett Szabo—Reuters
Hungary border fence migrants refugees
Hungarian soldiers install a wire fence at the border between Hungary and Serbia near Hercegszanto, 115 miles southeast from Budapest, on Aug. 25, 2015. Tamas Soki—EPA
syrian migrant refugee girl greece
A little girl from Syria looks out of a bus as the ferry she arrived in is reflected in the bus window at the port of Piraeus, Greece, on Aug. 25, 2015. Petros Giannakouris—AP
Macedonian police clash with refugees at blocked border
Children cry as migrants waiting on the Greek side of the border break through a cordon of Macedonian special police forces to cross into Macedonia, near the southern city of Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on Aug. 21, 2015.Georgi Licovski—EPA
Calais migrants
Gendarmerie attempt to prevent people from entering the Eurotunnel terminal in Coquelles, Calais, France on July 30, 2015.Rob Stothard—Getty Images
Kos Migrants Greece
Life vests and a deflated dinghy are seen on a beach on the Greek island of Kos, following the arrival of Afghan immigrants, on May 30, 2015.Yannis Behrakis—Reuters

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. She 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.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.