Syrian conflict not likely to endanger students studying abroad

As the Syrian Civil War rages on in its second year now, nearly 800,000 Syrians have been displaced and 177,387 are taking refuge in Turkey, where Georgia State plans to send students for the 2013 Maymester.

The sheer number of individuals seeking haven in neighboring countries, especially Turkey, is overwhelming aide agencies, according to Adib Shishakly, head of the aid coordination unit at the Assistance Coordination Unit of the Syrian National Coalition, currently based in southern Turkey.

“No matter how much aid and food baskets we are getting in; it’s not enough. The number of people trying to cross illegally has increased dramatically,” said Shishakly, in an interview with Al Jazeera on Feb. 18.

Though the overwhelming volume of refugees in southern Turkey continues to grow, it is not expected to affect Georgia State students’ safety for the duration of the trip.

Shawn Powers, assistant professor of Georgia State’s Communication Department, explained that the risk involved with this study abroad trip is greatly diminished by the distance between Istanbul, where Georgia State students will be staying and the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, over 700 miles away, which currently harbors the majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Students would likely not have any actual exposure to the conflict at all, though Powers said that the conflict would certainly be discussed in classes and lectures, and that students will have the unique opportunity to hear some pertinent local perspectives on the subject.

Powers also places his confidence in university and state authorities to keep students safe.

“The school has tremendous lawyers,” Powers said. “If at any point in time, they thought we’d be putting anyone’s life at risk, they would jump in immediately and not let us go. Their standard for risk is so small.” Powers also said that the state department also issues travel warnings, with no recent emphasis on Turkey.

Many students going on the trip have similar sentiments in regards to their safety while abroad.

“I feel like the university wouldn’t send us over there if there were any kind of problem because there would be such a high risk on the university’s behalf. I know the university is concerned with student safety and avoiding financial liability. I would be more concerned if the university was more concerned,” said student Charis Hanner.

Hanner’s classmate, Danielle Hughes expressed a similar level of concern.

“Safety was definitely a big concern for my family, but not me, so much,” Hughes said.

Hughes also said that the study abroad group has specific guidelines for safety, such as traveling in groups and not leaving any location alone.

“The Syrian Conflict has recent origins in the Arab Spring,” Powers said.

The Arab Spring refers to the revolutionary wave of protests occurring in the Arab world since Dec. 2010. Protesters demanded Syria’s current leader, President Bashar al-Assad, to resign and end nearly five decades of Ba’ath Party rule.

However, other uprisings of the Arab Spring have seen better success than the Syrian uprising.

“The Syrian government took a very different approach [to its citizens’ uprisings] than the Egyptian government. For example, they continued to fight protesters, which they call militants, and the West has armed many of these protesters,” Powers said.

The Syrian government’s resistance to opposition and the persistence of the Syrian National Coalition is creating a stalemate. Powers explained that the conflict is similar to past political events in Libya, but is not headed in a direction that will yield a new government. Instead, the conflict is returning the power to the Assad regime.

“The people early on had a lot more sympathy for the opposing forces, but as the conflict went on, the desire for a normal life [prevailed],” Powers said.