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More Syrians in Lebanon: Fewer in Universities

BEIRUT—Syrian refugees in Lebanon are losing out when it comes to gaining a university education, a new study released this week has found.

Financial constraints and language barriers, coupled with a lack of institutional aid, all contribute to low enrollment numbers of Syrian refugees at Lebanese universities, according to the report from the Institute of International Education and University of California at Davis. While there are up to 70,000 displaced Syrian university students in Lebanon, according to researchers’ estimates, at most only 10,000 of them are enrolled in Lebanese universities.

In fact, enrollment of Syrian nationals at the Lebanese University, the country’s only public university, is significantly lower than in the immediate pre-war era.

Lebanon is now home to more than one million registered Syrian refugees, a quarter of the country’s population. With no end to the three-year conflict in sight, both Syrians and Lebanese are being forced to adapt to what looks be a long stay for the refugees.

Those following the plight of the refugees have largely focused on the lack of primary and secondary education. But not enough is being done to help those Syrians seeking higher education in Lebanon, says the report, “The War Follows Them.” The report recommends that higher education become central to international humanitarian strategies.

The report lays out the dire impact of so many Syrians missing out on a university degree. “The focus on elementary education is important, but we must ask who the Syrian teachers in the future will be if we neglect the university students now,” says a Unesco education specialist, in the report.

Financial barriers are often preventing Syrians from getting a university degree. Higher education was heavily subsidized by the Syrian state. In Lebanon, Syrians, like other foreigners, are not eligible for governmental financial aid, and the high fees at private universities are often prohibitive for many Syrians.

There is a “general indifference” among higher education institutions in Lebanon toward helping Syrians, the report said, although some financial-aid programs do exist.

Nineteen-year-old Mahmoud Khalil would not have been able to continue his studies in Lebanon were it not for the financial help he got through Jusoor, an educational charity set up by Syrian expats. Khalil left his hometown of Damascus in January 2013, after violence in Aleppo cut short his first year of aviation engineering studies.

While he applied for the Lebanese University, where fees are as low as $700 a year, he, like many other Syrian students, found the entrance exams particularly difficult, since they are based around the Lebanese curriculum. Mahmoud’s English is good, but for many students from Syria language can be a barrier, as Lebanese learn English or French from the beginning of their education, while many Syrians are used to studying in Arabic.

With the financial help from Jusoor, Mahmoud was able to get into a communications course at Lebanese International University. He had to abandon his aviation dreams, as he was unable to find a similar course in Lebanon.

“I want to build my future, and there’s no other option here except to study,” he says. He hopes to eventually to go on to study in Europe or America, although his status as a Palestinian who settled in Syria makes that difficult. His residency permit has expired in Syria and he cannot go back to the country to renew it, thanks to the recent reinstatement of a law effectively barring Palestinians from entering Lebanon. If he left Lebanon, he could not get back in.

“Inshallah [God willing], I will go back to Syria and help rebuild my country,” he says of his long-term plans.

For now Khalil works for Jusoor as an assistant on the educational program for young Syrian refugees.

“It’s my duty to help these children,” he says. “Without an education, we will lose a generation. We have to teach them to have a future.” But he realizes that he is relatively lucky to be able to get a university education.

“It’s a huge challenge,” he says. “[Many Syrians] have to work to support their families; they have no other option.”


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