Paper Airplanes Across Syria

A view of Aleppo, Syria © Watchsmart

The civil war in Syria has its origin in civilian protests, which sprung up across many countries in the Middle East and North Africa as a consequence of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. The protests quickly escalated into a full-scale civil war after troops loyal to Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad attempted to suppress any dissenting voices with violence.

Groups opposed to Assad formed the Free Syrian Army and quickly built up a stronghold in Syria’s largest city Aleppo. The conflict became increasingly bloody with the emergence of outside factions such as Islamic State, and also with the intervention of foreign powers, most notably Russia, Iran and the United States.

The end of 2016 has seen a major offensive by Assad’s army, which has resulted in the recapture of much of Aleppo, but at a huge cost to the city and its civilian population.

Amidst all the headlines of horror and atrocities another unseen casualty of the 5-year long war has been education. In many areas the Syrian education infrastructure has completely collapsed, and Syrian students hoping to study overseas have not had access to English-language tuition, which often provides a vital passport to further education and employment.

Paper Airplanes

One organisation attempting to alleviate this situation is Paper Airplanes.

The founder of Paper Airplanes, Bailey Ulbricht recalls what first inspired her to set up the initiative:

“I spent the summer after my sophomore year of college volunteering in a small Turkish town called Reyhanlı on the Syrian border, working in a refugee children’s centre. I also had the opportunity to befriend around a dozen Syrians my age, who were forced to flee Syria and wanted desperately to return to school. After returning to the United States, I began Skyping some of them, who asked if they could practice their English with me. Soon I had so many people asking, that I needed some of my friends in the States to help out. The idea really grew organically, and in June 2014, we launched an official Paper Airplanes tutoring programme. Since then we have seen our programme grow from 10 to 250 students; we’ve watched our volunteers multiply to a staff of 17; and our programmes diversify into teaching other subjects and providing additional support for Syrians. The growth of the programme has been a bit overwhelming at times, but incredibly fulfilling as we look for creative solutions to the massive educational crisis facing Syria’s next generation.”

Return to Reyhanlı

Returning to Reyhanlı in December 2014, Bailey interviewed Syrian refugees who had fled the conflict to try to better understand their allegiances and viewpoint on the war:

“I knew that the growth of ISIS and al-Nusra inside of Syria was a major national security concern for the United States and the UK, and I had found literature on why fighters were joining these and other like-minded groups, but I could discover little information on civilian views: a major indicator of a group’s political legitimacy.”

“I wanted to know which groups Syrian civilians were supporting and why.”

“I found that, contrary to what many public figures were saying at the time, Syrians who supported al-Nusra were not ideologically radical. They simply saw al-Nusra as the strongest alternative to the regime, and were willing to sidestep some of their more radical rhetoric for their strength against regime forces.

“As with most field research, I left feeling like I needed much more information about Islam as a political force, its legal role in state institutions, and its power against secular dictatorships. To continue this research is one of the reasons why I am so excited to study Islamic Law next year, where I can dive more deeply into these questions.”

Marshall Scholarship

Bailey has recently been awarded a prestigious Marshall Scholarship to study in the UK, and plans to take an MA in Islamic Law at SOAS:

“I am particularly interested in pursuing research on how Islam plays/played a role in informing political choices and legal institutions in Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Libya.

“Unlike most universities in the United States, SOAS focuses on drawing professors and scholarship from the region itself. I have always been troubled by my own lack of training with thinkers and professors from the region, and I want the opportunity to expand my scholarship and extend my conceptions of state-building, of Islam as a political force, and of major thinkers from the region. I was drawn to SOAS by its MA in Islamic Law, which focuses a lot on the way liberal values are incorporated in the law, contrary to what is often suggested, that they are at war with one another.”

Looking to the Future

With a total cessation of hostilities in Syria still a distant hope and with the country ultimately facing a massive programme of rebuilding and reconciliation, the future for Syria still remains very uncertain.

However, Bailey can take personal satisfaction from knowing that she has helped to provide more optimistic futures for some of the students who have studied with Paper Airplanes.

Regarding her own plans:

“After graduating from SOAS, I hope to get my law degree and focus on state-building and institutional support and reform in the Middle East. I think ultimately the issues in the Middle East stem from political problems and bad governance, and I hope to play an integral role in helping to reform those institutions. Ultimately, I believe human dignity comes from open civil societies and spaces for political expression, and I will dedicate my life to helping build those institutions in the Middle East.”

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