The First Lady of Syria at Harvard


 America is notorious for its policies concerning our region, but it is also a great country with many achievements, among its greatest, in my opinion, is its educational system. This statement comes from someone with first hand experience with the Syrian, French and British educational systems.

Allowing that American universities are the best in the world, among them Harvard ranks at the very top, and the Harvard Business School is the jewel of the Harvard crown. To this school the brightest students go to study business theory and practices, and it was to this school that I headed with my family last week. The reason behind the visit could not have been more exciting: the students have elected Syria to be their theme of study and research. For a whole month they have researched the newly emerging business environment in Syria, and the initiatives taken by various civil societies and NGOs. On April 29, at 8 am, the students of Professor Robert Eccles started discussing one major project undertaken by NGOs in Syria; that of establishing a children’s educational park in Damascus in the now vacant old grounds of the Damascus International Exhibition.

And who was the invited guest from Syria chosen to discuss the whole project? None other than Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad.

 At 8:30 am (sharp), a video-conference with the first lady was set up. Beginning the conference with icebreakers, the first lady told the students about a student’s delegation from Harvard that met with her a fortnight earlier. For the following 90 minutes, the first lady, from her office in Damascus, my husband and I in the auditorium at Harvard, and a number of invited guests followed a fascinating discussion and analysis of the children’s educational park project presented by the students. The discussion highlighted any potential problems, dissected all aspects of the project management, debated the possible cultural misunderstandings among the various stake holders of the project, and wondered about possibilities and expectations upon the completion of the project.

 Following the discussion, Assad gave her own reflections on what the students had presented, and reminded them that this project is a unique experiment in developmental education that is arguably unparalleled around the world. She was friendly, passionate, candid, and straightforward, her attitude completely down-to-earth and non-ceremonial. Within minutes, it was apparent to my husband and I that she had won the hearts and minds of some of the brightest students on the planet.

 After presenting her views on the previous discussion, she addressed questions and shared with the students her thoughts before ending the video-conference by inviting two students from Harvard, to come to Syria as interns and spend a time working on the ground with the project’s team. The response from the students to this invitation was so enthusiastic, eventually it was agreed to allow nine students to come instead of the originally intended two. By midday, the video-conference with the first lady was over, but my husband and I stayed for the rest of the day, continuing the discussions with the students and professors, and expanding on subjects other than the children’s educational park. However, the highlight of the day was definitely the absolutely fabulous encounter between the Harvard students and Asma al-Assad, which went a long way in improving and confirming the image of Syria as a splendidly rich and complex country that invariably captures the imagination of those who care to know a little about it.

 By Rafif Al-Sayed, Created 06/09/2008 - 11:43

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