Karim Khwanda

Student spotlight details

Karim enrolled on the MSc in Sustainable Urban Development in order to learn how to help reconstruct and develop cities in Syria.

'Prior to enrolling on the MSc in Sustainable Urban Development, I was a Managing Partner in a trading, construction, and logistics company in Syria, and trying to help ensure that we didn’t go under during a worsening conflict. Though much more fortunate than most, my family and I were still very anxious about staying safe, because the fighting and kidnapping in Damascus (especially in 2012/2013) quickly became a daily reality that was quite terrifying – though it was by no means the worst in the country.

'Over the last 7 years, we went from a company of over 3000 employees to one of under 1000 in order to stay afloat - knowing fully well that those who lost their jobs would not find another, and that the chances of them picking up a gun for one side or another were cruelly high. Worst of all, however, is that we lost dozens of colleagues and friends to the war. Everybody did. 

'I was shocked by UN statistics that showed that over 30% of all urban areas in Syria had been completely destroyed, and that an additional 30% exhibited significant damage. Over half of our cities and peri-urban areas need to be rebuilt if 13.5 million Refugees and Internally Displaced People are to return to some sort of home. My hope was that this course could train me on how to do this, and how to do it in the most appropriate and impactful way. 

'I found that the frequent travel and the considerable amount of reading and writing required me to manage my time and multi-task in a way that was different to what I was used to. It was certainly a good thing to get used to though!  I really enjoyed (and needed) the flexibility that the part-time format offered because it meant that I was able to continue to meet my professional obligations in parallel with my studies at Oxford – that was very important to me. 

'I’m now living between Syria and London, and travel back and forth every ten days or so. I’m currently a board director of a development company that is conceptualising and delivering an urban mixed-use project in Damascus, in addition to a hospital outside the city, and a port container terminal on the Mediterranean coast – very challenging undertakings in the current environment. I’m proud to say that my contributions as a director have been enriched significantly as a direct result of taking this course – they are more strategic, evidence-based, and confident. I also sit on the board of a Middle Eastern bank that is looking to engage in Syria’s reconstruction and trade, as this becomes increasingly possible. 

'Most recently, I’ve begun to provide analysis and consulting to an international think tank on the various challenges that Syria is going through and on the country’s reconstruction and development picture. I’m also deeply committed to the conflict resolution and reconciliation work that I’ve been engaged in since the start of the crisis seven years ago. Syria’s intractable conflict makes peace-building and community bridge-building incredibly frustrating, but it is also very rewarding at times (when we’re able to pull it off). 

'In late 2017, I was extremely grateful to David Howard and the rest of the faculty to have been given the platform to address the Oxford MSUD network. I spoke about the absolutely transformative impact that the course had on me and my work. In two years, I transitioned from someone who had very little interest in (or knowledge of) the concept of sustainability, especially in the face of what Syria was going through and what I thought the country needed, to someone who understood the ways in which sustainability was central to urban development – whether post-conflict or not. 

'I also talked about how sustainability-thinking in the urban realm and beyond has to be the starting point of everything we do - whether it is conflict prevention and mitigation, or addressing climate change, or socio-economic inequality, or designing optimal accessibility into cities so that their inhabitants can live fuller lives. 

'The beauty of Oxford is that inspiration and learning is absolutely everywhere, and I would really encourage students to squeeze as much out of their experience here as possible beyond their course. For example, debating for the Oxford Union taught me how to quickly construct a structured argument and think critically under pressure and in front of an audience. Their on-going workshops every Sunday evening are a very welcoming environment that students can integrate into their week before the course module starts on Monday morning. 

'I would advise somebody who is considering undertaking the MSc not to hesitate in applying. Completing this degree at Oxford has been a transformative experience for me - it has changed the way I think, and has really added to my value system and my professional capacity and confidence.'

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