So the row continues. A bunch of Syrian doctors and pharmacists who had graduated from certain universities in Ukraine and Armenia are once again under the peril of having their licenses revoked.
Allow me to shed a little light on the background of the story. Despite the emergence of few private universities recently, the Syrian public education system still caters to the overwhelming majority of Syrians. Love it or hate it, you've got to give credit where credit is due; the system is very reliable and very accessible (or has been until recently). If you are a low-income middle class Syrian, you can see your son through all the way to medical school, provided that your son is hardworking and smart. And provided that you're willing to wait and bite the bullet till he graduates, rather than throw him early on to the grinding gears of vocational employment, where his chances of making difference in society are next to nil. (with all due respect to the much needed services that sector provides, but I digress). So if you're patient, and if you're a believer in the importance of education, and the nobility of knowledge, and if you're immune to the fluctuating public perception of a university degree holder (one which varies from a beggar or potato seller to a notable or a community leader), then you will witness very ripe fruits. You will point to your son with pride in a family gathering and recite all his achievements. (and he must react with the standard-issue blush). Indeed, this was the hallmark of the egalitarian Syrian society, until very recently, when the growing numbers of students (i.e. higher demand) dictated a different kind of approach; it's become no longer possible to enter medical school, or even the most battered version of engineering college, unless you are one very special student. You must study sixteen hours a day for more than two years, and be of a high IQ, and also be very lucky, to score a respectable grades. It all depends on the Baccalaureate exams. It's the crucial battle where your future career is defined by the kind of college you are allowed to enroll on. And since the system is public, the seats are limited, and the competition is growing stiffer given the growing demands. And since the social perception and esteem of doctors is still high; we are bound to witness huge wave of bitterness amongst Baccalaureate graduates every year when they find out that their grades don't entitled them to more than say: Physics and Math Science, or Agricultural engineering, or Economics. (for some reason, the idea of Business administration being a coveted specialty hasn't concurred the Syrian mentality yet). My friends Abu Fares wrote about this subject extensively.
So back to our story: in the middle and early nineties when pharmacies in Syria were much fewer in numbers, and hence they were cranking up more money, people contrived method to overcome the first difficulty of setting up such commercial business, namely the acquiring of a degree. Indeed, the social esteem is a great factor, but you can’t deny the healthy return-over-investment too. And there was another caveat here; a pharmacist, as it's universally known, doesn't really need to learn much. It's irrelevant that the Faculty of Pharmacology in Aleppo is one of the toughest in the Arab world, and it's irrelevant that hundreds of brilliant kids stampede every year to get through its gates, a pharmacist is still pharmacist; a make-belief doctor who's job is to decipher another doctor's shitty handwriting and offer alternatives to obsolete commercial drugs. A more important part of the business is how to exploit the offers of pharmaceutical companies; if you buy two cartoons of this brand of suppositories, we’re offering you two packs of condoms for free. Promotions, man. It's not uncommon to see diapers and cans of infants' powder milk on display, but that's the case everywhere, I think. So you don’t really need to be that smart to work as a pharmacist, the hard part, the part where the system is (rightly or wrongly) imposing its own measures of natural selection, that hard part is to GET THERE. And has it really ever been difficult for Aleppine textile manufacturer or Dir Al Zorian cattle traders to figure out how to get there? The Soviet Union had collapsed. And with it all standards of education in the good old USSR. Ukraine and Armenia took on the chance. Private university started proliferating. Stamps cranked out one certificate after the other. It was a farce, for several years. Some universities stipulated attendance (much to the joy of some of my old pals who, despite being warned against it by their conservative families, ended up having affairs with the local beauties. "Cheaper than radish, but sweeter than honey", an acquaintance of mine retorted when we asked him innocently about the weather.)
It wasn't the first time Syrian youth studied in the former Soviet Union. There was generation after generation of post-graduates getting dispatched to Moscow to pluck the most recent of knowledge of the giant of the eastern bloc. Say what you want about good old Russia, they were great partners to us in war and in peace. Out of dozens of academicians who taught me in Aleppo school of architecture, only two were graduates of Russia, and they were both great teachers. But they were both into theory; one taught us Theory of Architecture, and the other Theory of Town Planning. But let's be honest; architecture is a very individualistically driven specialty. Good, creative architecture (if you exclude details of sculpture and painting) is a reflection of relaxed by-laws and an economy influenced by private money. So none of my Architectural Design teachers, who were graduates of the eastern bloc states, were inspiring in any way shape or form.
But apart from this, I can't be ungrateful to the great scientific support we've got from the Soviets. Suffice it to say that they've helped us to build the Euphrates Dam, test it and commission it too. Again, let's give credit to the comrades where credit is due.
But the Soviet Union disintegrated. And with the fall of the iron-fist, centralist control of the state and the rise of conglomerate-style gang-bangers and leather-clad skinheads roaming the streets collecting royalties and protection money, pimping, pushing drugs, selling illegal merchandize ..etc..(a practice which later evolved to embrace certain trade at the state level), within this orgy of disorder the education system wasn't totally spared. The textile manufacturers and the cattle traders of Syria got a whiff of what was going on, and immediately the shabab (the youth) who were otherwise sad excuses for sons, were sent to grab the highest accolades of science from the bordellos of Odesa and the brothels of Yarivan.
But our ministries of health and higher education aren't dumb. When the first wave of graduates returned they were required to pass 'equalization' (Ta'deel) exam. In order to determine whether the said graduate is really capable of the subject or not. Some passed, many didn't. There was no rush, they could try in the second round; the exams were conducted at a six month basis. And when they did graduate, the capital was ready to establish the business of selling drugs (not the same drugs the Russian villains were dealing, but real medicine).
Nevertheless, there was still a problem, a huge problem. Our own authentic pharmacists, the ones who studied hard in our own colleges, and memorized an incessant stream of chemical combinations, vital impacts, side-effects, and were subject to the toughest exams and the most draining lab tests (I should know, my accident-magnet friend I told you about before is one of them), those real pharmacists felt overwhelmed and disenfranchised by the endless overflow of punks from Odesa and Armenia. They've kept on complaining until a committee from the ministry of health was formed (nothing can be achieved without a committee, you know) and they were flown to the respective universities north and east of the black sea to check on the standards; the stories they've come back with will make you pee your pants (either from laughter or horror, your choice). One private university in Armenia for instance, comprised of a hot, wet stamp and an elderly woman who smelled of cabbage.
A mistake was made, somehow. I am not privy to all the details so I am prepared to be corrected, but it seems that when it was decided to no longer approve or recognize or equalize the certificates issued from the inspected universities, it was also decided to revoke some of those who were already equalized at that particular year (2005, I think). And their practice licenses were pulled back. They've protested. Big time, I am told. I'd think they would. Not all of them are sons of textile tycoons or cattle merchants, some of them had their families in debt to pay for their 'education', and they were patiently waiting to be licensed to start up their business and pay back. Revoking their licenses is practically condemning them to poverty. So the decision was retracted. Now three years on, it seems the shababs' licenses are revoked, again. A long labyrinth of a story that I honestly didn't understand. One thing I do know though, these guys' predicament should be resolved once and for all. It's a nightmare. Since the ministry had approved their certificates' equalization after an exam, they should own up to their responsibility and culpability in the farce from the beginning, and approve the licenses permanently.
Don't get me wrong here; I despise every one of those who literally 'paid' for their certificates. The way they got it is an insult to those of us who had to go the hard way. But they seriously need a resolution. My empathy with them is purely humane.
My two cents….