Abu Kareem | M.D. United States
August 25th, 2007

Re: ‘Syrian expatriates

Estimated at 15 million strong and with assets of up 80 billion dollars, the Syrian expatriate community represents an enormous human and financial capital. However, attracting the expatriate financial resource requires a very different set of incentives than those required to attract the human capital. As someone interested in the comprehensive advancement of Syrian society, not only its economic prosperity, I place more value on the human capital that the expatriate community can offer. Real, sustainable improvements in Syria as a nation will come from maximizing the potential of its people rather than from sporadic infusions of cash by fickle investors looking for quick returns. Expatriate human capital can be tapped for knowledge and experience in a wide range of disciplines ranging from science to engineering to corporate governance to law and information technology.

Syrian expatriates are a diverse group who emigrated at different times and for different reasons. In the context of harnessing this human capital, I see the Syrian expatriate community roughly divided into three groups. The first are the long-standing expatriates, like me, who are settled and have likely become citizens of other countries. These expatriates, often well established in their host countries, are unlikely to move back to Syria, except perhaps in retirement. Some among this group will make periodic trips to Syria for professional meetings. Such meetings make good copy for the local newspapers, make the expatriates feel good ‚??as well provide them with a tax write off- but rarely result in substantial and sustained transfer of new knowledge and ideas. More important would be the creation of ongoing relationships between expatriate professionals and their colleagues at institutions back home. For example ongoing visiting lectureships can be created at various universities in Syria for expatriates with unique experience and skills in different disciplines. A database of expatriates willing to contribute to such an enterprise can be created and used to invite lecturers.

The second group of expatriates is composed of those who have been away from Syria for five to ten years. They are typically younger and have left to pursue higher education and perhaps stayed on to work. They do not return because they are trying to delay a potentially career-breaking two-year stint of military service or because there are no job opportunities for their particular skills. These expatriates are much more likely to return with the proper incentives.

The third groups of expatriates are in fact not expatriates at all; they are expatriates to be. It is the group composed of ambitious young men and women seeking higher education and training outside of Syria. A high percentage of them will almost certainly become expatriates. They represent the open wound hemorrhaging human capital -the brain drain. This group should be even more of a concern for the Ministry of Expatriate affairs than the first two groups. The emphasis should not be on preventing them or discouraging them from leaving as the skills they will acquire are important, but on facilitating and encouraging their return.

The creation of a Ministry of Expatriate affairs is a good start although the government‚??s commitment seems less than optimal. The ministry has a miniscule staff and their website has sparse and not very useful information and is out of date. Moreover, the emphasis with the first two expatriate conferences seems to be on attracting the expatriates‚?? money rather than the expatriates themselves or in harnessing their skills.

Expatriates uniformly retain a passionate and sentimental attachment to their homeland and are more than willing to help their homeland. Yet, how, why and when they left Syria clearly colors their attitudes towards the Syrian government and their willingness to work with it. It is therefore critical that the minister of Expatriate Affairs to rise above politics to become the minister for all expatriates regardless of their political persuasions.

But perhaps the single most important thing that the Ministry of Expatriate affairs can do for all expatriates is to facilitate their ability to visit or return to their homeland. It is preposterous that I can visit just about any country in the world with more ease than I can the country of my birth. The recent amendment of the military service law was not helpful and needs to be radically overhauled.

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10 Responses to the Article

Yazan Badran Says:

Abu Kareem,

That was wonderful. I, belonging to that third group, see exactly what you’re saying.
As usual, I have absolutely nothing to add to your wonderful sum up.

Alex Says:

Abu Kareem I have a serious problem with your posts.

If every time you write Yazan has “absolutely nothing to add” … then you are practically kicking him out of this forum.

You see, I don’t do that… the proof is that Yazan never told me “I have absolutely nothing to add”.


I liked your prevention (instead of the more difficult treatment) approach. It helps to apply your medical experience.

Yazan Badran Says:

You see alex,
it’s a strategy, I wait until Syrian Brit or Abu kareem post something, and I agree… They deliver my thoughts exactly, in a much, much, much more elegant way…

Hammam Yousef Says:

Abu Kareem,
Nice categories‚?¶
I feel there are two things should be clarified:

1- I believe the ministry of expatriates was invented solely to suck expatriates money and political support for the corrupt regime and polish it‚??s dirty image as Mr. Arwashan suggested. They don‚??t really care what expatriates think or need!
2- Buthaina Shaban represents her master, and her master only! Much more‚?¶ instead of supporting Syrian Expats as her job should be, she sides against them when she needs to fulfill her position as a regime lackey. Anyway I don‚??t expect from her any difference.

One more thing should be taken in consideration, Unless Expats force the regime to respect them, which can be done by pressuring and cornering it with regards to Democracy and Human Rights, the regime will not really bother! Expats have a real chance to help progress and development in Syria, and that can be done by lobbying ‚??and excuse my clich√©- all the freedom-loving countries to exercise a sustained pressure on the regime, other wise, nothing will work.

Yesterday, it was reported that the President cousin shot a man to death in cold blood, and long time before that, another member of the ‚??family‚?Ě was robbing money-exchange companies in day light, these are the only the tip of the iceberg. Knowing the nature of the regime I wouldn‚??t expect any real positive change, the ‚??Badal‚?Ě is nothing but another way to suck money and every body knows it! For God‚??s sake‚?¶ Military Service! In what army?! And to serve who?! This army which is used only to keep the people quite or‚?¶ Hama is the example.

All what you have mentioned is applicable only in a country with a legitimate government with an elected ‚??real elections- parliament and president.

‚?¶. I think ÔĀ?

And Alex‚?¶ I know you are watching! Lets have it ÔĀ?

Majhool Says:

Abu Kareem,

I was going to write on the topic but since you spelled it out exactly how it is, then i am lending my voice to you . I am in the third group and slowly phasing into the second. very sad.

DJ Says:

The first step toward harnessing expats‚?? human capital is to acknowledge the need for it.

Does our reverend government acknowledge its need for such an asset?

Let‚??s even look at the social level; average people perceive expats‚?? ideas and way of thinking as align. I lost count of the times I‚??d get ridiculed at by my old friends and colleagues back home, only because I put forward a certain idea that is different to what they are used to hear.
I am not at all underestimating the talented individuals living in Syria, and struggling to keep up to date with what‚??s happening in the world, but let‚??s face, there is a dire need for skills in the management and governance arena, as Abu Kareem rightly said, this is urgent gap that needs to be filled.

It is funny that I am asked to suggest to my ministry (of expats) how I could help them to help themselves, which reminds me of the great Simon & Garfunkel‚??s ‚??Mr‚??s Robinson‚?Ě:

We‚??d like to help you learn to help yourself‚?¶

Zenobia Says:

Appreciated this piece very much and I agree wholeheartedly with Abu Kareem that it is the human resource in terms of experience and knowledge bases of the expat diaspora that needs to be accessed far more than simply trying to accumulate donations and funds. Of course, investment is good too, but I have the feeling that money in Syria gets wasted too easily.
A more lasting approach to the needs in Syria is a combination of capital with the commitment of individuals who can bring some expertise to this land.
I also agree with DJ that there is a serious deficit in the area of management skills, organizational management, training in service as well as professional knowledge. Even on very basic levels (such as in restaurant management and other service sector jobs) there is very little leadership and comprehensive organized training.
People seem to be floundering around a lot in this country… and faking knowledge and expertise that they don’t actually have.

I would add that there is a great need for changes in mentality that would allow for the input of new methods and knowledge. I think on the one hand, many (particularly younger) Syrians are thirsting for information and training, and on the other hand, there are such entrenched systems of governance and organizational functioning that it makes it very hard for any dramatic changes and altering of the current methods of organizational management.

It should be the job of the ministry of expatriates or any other such body to both access the external human resourses, but also to promote within Syria the idea of bringing in new systems and expertise.. for the purpose of change, and Syrians need to prepare to receive and welcome such input from the outside.

Alex Says:


It is ok to help the ministry help itself … whatever works.

Zenobia … I have n idea that i will work on during the next month … it might turn out to be semi-interesting and useful. I’ll write to you to ask you your opinion in detail.

Majhool too: )

Global Voices Online » Syria: How Can Expats Help? Says:

[…] M.D. living in New York where he himself has been an expat for many years, wrote a very interesting critique of the efforts the government has been putting to attract “the expatriates‚?? money rather […]

Philip I Says:

Abu kareem, nice post; perceptive, informative and balanced.

Dictators and loyal ministers can have good intentions and at the same time bury their heads in the sand . They will tell you that the country needs you but never admit that the problems are mostly of their own making or that they are part of the solution.

Study after study has shown that, throughout the world, countries make real progress when their civil service develops to such a level that it earns the respect of expatriates and foreign investors alike and begins to attract them. The behaviour of a child says a lot about its upbringing and the character of its parents. By the same token, the organisation and professionalism of the civil service tell you a great deal about the character of a government, its economic and social priorities and transparency. So the next time the articulate Buthaina Shaaban bemoans the broken toys back home, let’s ask her what she is doing to discipline and educate her own child.

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