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Davis, California

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Interview with human rights professor Keith Watenpaugh

In the religious studies department in Sproul Hall, one will find professor Keith Watenpaugh in his office overlooking the university campus from the ninth floor. An associate professor of modern Islam, human rights and peace since 2006, Watenpaugh recently developed the human rights minor at UC Davis. His most recent research involves displaced Syrian university students in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

What are you currently researching?

I just finished a book called Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism under contract with the University of California Press. I’ve researched the history, theory and practice of human rights and humanitarianism, especially in the wake of war and genocide.

The research I’m currently working on involves understanding the current conditions facing refugee university students from the war in Syria, both as a problem of security and the human right to education.

When did this research begin?

We began the research work in March 2013. This last month concluded the third part of the study in Turkey. It’s been a three-part study. I’ve written essays on each one of the projects.

What did these studies involve?

The first part of the study took place in Jordan in the Vazt Zaatari refugee camp. The project was talking with displaced refugee students. What was interesting about that project is that before we visited that camp, which had about a 120,000 people in it, we were talking with United Nations officials about the project and about going to the Zatari camp, and they said there are no university students there.

[My colleagues and I] found this shocking that a UN official would say this, because we knew that Syria had a fairly large university population. Those of us who had worked in Syria and studied in Syria knew this was not the case. This illustrates, in many ways, why learning about a specific part of the world can be important for developing appropriate relief strategies. One size doesn’t fit all, so what may be true in South Africa or Central East Asia is probably not true in Syria or the Balkans.

What was your first impression?

We went to the camp on a dry, cold March morning and talked to 30-plus university students in the camp, including a lot of women students, most of whom were in engineering and biological science fields.

Many of them had smuggled laptops and kept them in their refugee tents. What we found is [that] young Syrian refugees who had been in university were eager to try to go back to school. They understood that going to university was absolutely critical for their own survival or that of their family.

What were some of the obstacles students faced?

They were facing a lot of problems. It was expensive. Many of them didn’t have their paperwork or their high school graduation certificates. Think about if a UC Davis undergrad had to flee overnight — how much documentation would they be able to gather and take with them? You have no idea where your transcripts or high school diplomas are.


What we also began to learn about in that camp was a very difficult problem: Many of the young women students in particular were under a great deal of pressure from the families to marry. There is evidence of the sale of women into marriage at the camp, and they didn’t want to.

Higher education for women in Syria and elsewhere in the developing world is about empowerment and the ability to have more of a choice and a say in important life choices like marriage and career and children. Higher education is one of the most effective tools in expanding the range of choice for young women.

Where was the next study?

We continued the work in Lebanon in spring of 2014. The research visits are during my breaks from teaching. Over spring break of 2014 I took a group of researchers to Lebanon where we did research work in Beirut and north of Lebanon and in the Beqaa Valley. Right now there are over a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which means that about one in four human beings in that territory in Lebanon is Syrian. No other country has that ratio of refugees to population.

How does that affect relations?

We witnessed terrible cruelty in [the] treatment of Syrians, especially Syrian young people. That attitude [toward Syrians] was even among higher education administrators — places where you think they’d be very interested in promoting human right to education. We saw hatred and prejudice. We knew we were going to see some, but it was much worse than we had imagined. It was taking a toll on these young people. Many of them were working 12-hour days to provide for their families and to scrape together enough money to pay tuition — if they were in school; many weren’t. Other students were afraid that they could be arrested and deported back to Syria at any moment. Some places we found were just generally dangerous.

Can you give some specific examples of the danger?

When we were working in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, we were talking with a group of students at a nice coffee house, and a bomb went off in the building next to us. When I think about it today, it still shakes me up. That was really hard. Other places where we were working we could hear the exchange of gunfire. Students reported having to travel across militarized checkpoints to get to school.

How did the students react to you?

We spoke Arabic with the students. I like students. I like my UC Davis students, and I like university students in general. I think they were happy to be able to talk about what’s going on in their lives and share their problems with someone.

Do you think anyone else was listening?

Well, this is the whole issue with the Syrian conflict. This is the humanitarian conflict of our generation. There has been nothing like this since the ’90s. It seems to almost have been forgotten. We’re meeting with these young people, and they’re asking, “Why isn’t the world trying to help us more?”

You saw this frustration firsthand?

They really feel they have been abandoned and isolated. This was really the case also in Turkey, much more so than in Lebanon. The final study was in Turkey this last spring for about a month. We met a young man, a graduate student, from Raqqa in Syria. We met him in Southern Turkey. He was a student in agriculture – worked on rice farming and fertilizer – and he yelled at us, “Why aren’t you helping us?” He was very frustrated, and we were the only people from America at hand.

Was that hard?

It comes with the territory. It doesn’t make you happy to be yelled at, but you can understand why that happens. His best friend had just been executed by ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] the day before. I think we just wanted to try and understand his feelings. We told him that we shared his frustration with the failure of the international community to actively help the Syrians. It seems doubly unfair to these smart, young people, because they’re so critically important to the future of Syria.

What is the importance of this younger generation?

One of the other things we encountered in Syria is that young Syrian men – we’re talking about people our undergraduates [resemble] in age – face a huge problem. If they are not afforded the opportunity to study, to work, to help provide for their families, then one very attractive option to them is to fight in the war on the side of [ISIS], because [ISIS] with pay them, will give them a purpose — even though that purpose is utterly abominable. If we don’t reach out to them in a substantial way, someone else will. That process of radicalization is bad for us and the region, but it is totally preventable.

What led you to pursue this research?

Well, the war in Syria is terrible. It’s about the worst thing you could imagine, and I have a unique set of skills and knowledge. I know Arabic. I lived in Syria. I understand and like undergraduates. I think they’re an incredibly important part of my future and the society where I live, but also the future of the Middle East. I felt the need to try and help the best I could. This is a war that is so terrible that those of us who can help and don’t are neglecting our own humanity.

What aspect of the research did you find the most difficult?

Spending hours listening to people talk about losing their families, losing their homes, their universities and falling further behind in their education, and then knowing how powerless we are to help them without a great deal of outside assistance from wealthy states and governments.

I imagine that’s something you dealt with throughout the research?

Every place we went. Everyday we were in the field for hours at a time. And as bad as it made us feel, we knew that the Syrian people we were speaking to were suffering much worse. We could always go home — and we did. They are stuck.

How do you tie your research into your teaching/classes here at Davis?

The first part of my research, the work on the history of humanitarianism, informs all my classes: genocide, human rights, human rights in the Middle East, as well as the work I do with graduate students. I don’t necessarily tie the work with the refugee students directly into my teaching, but it’s how I try to be a good role model [of] social engagement for my colleagues and our students.

What advice would you have for UC Davis students interested in going into this field?

Certainly the human rights minor is a good place to learn about these opportunities.

The most important thing is to develop good foreign language skills — to spend actual time in these areas on internships and other projects to get a familiarity with the region. Also, getting advanced degrees in fields like public policy, public help, social work — even academic counseling, can be very useful. There’s plenty for people to do. The war in Syria and these other conflicts in the Middle East, they will last for at least a generation.

Does that idea ever slow you down?

It’s very easy sometimes to lose hope, but as human beings, we can’t.

What else can people do to help?

Another way to help [is this]: The United States and Sacramento, in fact, is about to receive probably about 2,000 to 3,000 refugees for permanent resettlement, and local agencies that serve refugees are going to need help.



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