Macedonia: pay attention to the Balkans' early-warning system

Straddling the fault-line between Islam and Christianity, this country's changing fortunes are important.

In the past three years the capital of the republic of Macedonia has undergone a major building programme that has enlivened the drab concrete of its 1960s, post-earthquake centre. The Skopje 2014 project includes a series of reconstructed neoclassical civic buildings, new bridges and, at either end of the medieval Stone Bridge, statues of sandalled Greek warriors commonly thought to be Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great.
 
The simplified, doll-like features and gigantism of these figures imply an unfamiliarity with the very western culture that, paradoxically, they celebrate. Said to cost up to €500m ($670m), Skopje 2014 is closely identified with Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his VMRO-DPMNE party, who were re-elected in 2011. The party is pro-Europe and pro-Nato and describes itself as Christian democratic. As that implies, it is usually seen as sidelining the country’s Muslim citizens, even though the Democratic Party of Turks is a member of its coalition government. The new Skopje looks backwards, in a manner known locally as antiquisation, to a resolutely western classical antiquity that the government of today claims as the country’s own. This claim is exacerbating already difficult relations with Greece, Bulgaria and, to a certain extent, Macedonia’s Albanian community.
 
As so often in the Balkans, the difficulties are with narrative. The country is termed Fyrom – the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – within the UN at the insistence of Greece, which, under the 1913 Treaty of Bucharest, gained a region of about 13,000 square miles that is also known as Macedonia. The treaty also granted territory to the modern republic’s other neighbours, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro. Greece claims that for today’s state to call itself Macedonia implies territorial ambition. Bulgaria, though unfazed by the name, claims that the present government is spreading anti- Bulgarian propaganda.
 
Balkan narratives are notoriously dangerous. Roughly two-thirds of the republic’s population of just over two million is Orthodox Christian and the remaining third Muslim. Approximately two-thirds is ethnic Macedonian and a quarter is ethnic Albanian; it also has substantial Turkish and Serbian communities, and at least 54,000 Roma inhabitants. In other words, Macedonia, which managed to emerge from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s without drastic ethnic cleansing, straddles the region’s fault line between Islam and Christianity, making it a significant early-warning system.
 
In 2012, the EU enlargement commissioner recommended for the fourth time that the republic, an official candidate since December 2005, should start accession negotiations. For the fourth time, the EU turned down this recommendation, rather giving the Macedonian government some months’ grace to resolve its issues with Greece and Bulgaria.
 
As its neighbours join the EU and Macedonia is left behind, its economic position and stability can only deteriorate. In 2012 the IMF ranked the republic 133rd out of 185 countries by GDP, at $9.7bn.
 
In the light of all this, Skopje 2014 seems not so much folie de grandeur as common insanity. This summer there have been mass demonstrations against a government viewed by all sections of the population as out of touch and out of control. The possibility of real change in what is still a young democracy has receded for now. But this peculiarly vulnerable – and very beautiful – country remains the Balkan canary. We should pay attention when it sings.
A statue of Alexander is lowered into the central square in Skopje, 2011. Photograph: Ognen Teofilovsky/Reuters.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".