An Olive Branch from Mexico to Syria

You don’t judge someone’s ability to help others when they are going strong but when they are not.

Mexico is a country that is dealing with a host of problems of its own, and yet it is extending an open hand to Syrian refugees.

The Mexican government is becoming a player in targeted humanitarian outreach, training and educating students from its more impoverished neighbors and strengthening regional cooperation. Last year, Mexico welcomed 103 Haitian students and provided them with scholarships to complete their higher education, and now, through the Proyecto Habesha (Habesha Project: English here, Arabic here), it is opening its doors to Syrian students.

A handful of the Prophet’s (PBUH) followers fled persecution in Mecca to Abyssinia (Ethiopia) at Muhamad’s advice, and met the Christian Negus (King) Al-Asham, and urged him to take Allah into his heart. Moved by their speech honoring the Virgin Mary and Jesus, Al-Asham refused to convert, but granted the Prophet’s followers’ safe passage throughout Abyssinia.

This gesture is known as Habesha, after the name of old Abyssinians, and is at the heart of this new initiative coordinated with the Government of Mexico.

The Habesha Project wishes to offer safe passage to Syrian students who, because of the ongoing civil war, were forced into displacement and couldn’t complete their higher education, in Mexico, where several of the leading institutions of higher learning are prepared to offer them full scholarships towards completing their degrees.

The Habesha Project has three leading objectives:

  • A pilot phase involving 30 Syrian refugees selected from camps in Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon to complete their higher education in Mexico.
  • An awareness-raising component involving public academic conferences at leading Mexican universities, and an itinerant artistic platform comprised of previously unaired documentaries by Syrian activists and artwork by Syrian refugees.
  • An academic component charging participating universities with developing special curricula on Middle Eastern politics, culture and history to form future Mexican humanitarian, non governmental and civil service workers.

Thirty doesn’t sound like much, but you have to start somewhere and consider the difficulty of selecting candidates among millions of displaced, often without their records, whose universities have been destroyed, and training them, creating an environment for them to adjust and giving them a quality education. The Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados (COMAR) is providing technical support to the project and facilitates dialogue with high-level government officials, to make sure that as with the Abyssinian king, safe passage is granted.

The selected candidates will be placed in top Mexican universities. Two have already committed to giving the students full scholarships in the program of their choice.

Other universities have been approached and discussions are underway the following three have contributed experts in designing the project, and while they haven’t joined the project officially, their excellence would make them incredible places for the young participants to study:

In addition, the Universidad Panamericana in the State of Aguascalientes, one of the safest and most rapidly developing states in Mexico, will host the students for a full year, free of cost, for language and cultural training before they join their selected institutions, keeping them together to minimize culture shock and bond and develop support groups among each other.

Participants were chosen in the field thanks to the local involvement of UNHCR staff, who are helping with logistics and the interview process that began on Monday November 3rd in Zaatari, and represent the diversity of Syria’s population and refugee population abroad.

Behind the Habesha Project is a team of volunteers comprised of humanitarians, civil servants and development workers in the Americas, Europe and the Middle East, and anywhere they can connect to a computer, which probably explains why their website is still under construction.

The project is generating high-profile interest in Mexico, in both the academic and entertainment industry. Professor Mauricio Mechoulam, leading Mexican and Jewish academic, has awarded the project his own personal Nobel prize, has appeared on national television (45m34s), and is a fully fledged member of the Habesha team.

The project aims to triple the number of participants after the pilot phase and is being registered as a Non Governmental Organization (NGO) to widen the bridge between Mexico and Syria and promote student exchange with the region.

It’s a cold, cold world, and winter is coming, but by spring thirty Syrian students will be in Mexico with a shot at a future. Beyond the tragic, Syria is losing a generation, and with Lebanon closing its doors, one window of opportunity in the region has just shut.

The Habesha Project is an olive branch for now, but it will grow.

About the Author
Mame Bougouma Diene is a civil servant on permanent vacation even when he works 70 hours a week, who also blogs for the Times of Israel in French. He's French-Senegalese American, loves Israel and the Middle East, would really like to see an end to this intractable mess in his lifetime.