NEW YORK— The victims of a cruel civil war, many Syrian students still want to go to university. The lucky few who find a place overseas and the means to attend have an arduous journey, peppered with aggressive bureaucratic checkpoints to navigate.
Two years ago, the Institute of International Education set up a special consortium to try to smooth the way for Syrian students stuck in refugee camps to travel overseas and complete their degrees. “When we started a lot of people told us that there weren’t any university students in the camps,” says the institute’s vice president of external affairs Daniela Kaisth, “But that simply wasn’t true. There are thousands of them.”
During last week’s Clinton Global Initiative, in a meeting at a midtown Manhattan hotel, the consortium announced their progress since 2012. It wasn’t good news.
Before the war in Syria erupted in 2011, between 15 and 20 percent of the country’s urban population could boast a bachelor’s degree. Since then, the large-scale disruption and displacement of both faculty and students has created a so-called “lost generation” of uneducated youth. It has left many wondering who will be the doctors, engineers and scientists who can rebuild Syria after the war.
Over the last two years the Institute for International Education has arranged for 50 universities to commit 300 scholarships at a combined value of $5 million, filling the needs of only a fraction of what they estimate to be 150,000 Syrian students whose education has been interrupted by the conflict. On top of that, only 110 of the scholarship places have been successfully filled. “I’m very upset that we don’t have enough money,” says the president of the institute Allan E. Goodman. “But it’s worth remembering that every student is worth it and you can only do what you can do.”
The cost of providing accommodation, stipends and flights from Syria is limiting the consortium’s efforts more than funding the scholarships and convincing universities to waver tuition fees. Additional funding from Jusoor, the U.S. State Department and the Carnegie Corporation totaling $375,000 helped to meet these costs for the students who have been placed.
“ISIS is much cheaper,” confesses Goodman, “If we don’t come up with an alternative for Syria’s young populations then it’s much easier for them to get involved with their barbaric terrorism.”
The financial limitations have prompted Goodman’s team to look at alternatives that are closer to the refugee camps. They played with the idea of a “pop up University,” like the Free Syrian University in Turkey, but believed such an effort was unlikely to reach a large number of students. Instead, they hope to capitalize on the already established universities within driving distance of the camps in Jordan and Lebanon.
Kaisth says this is probably 10 times cheaper than moving students to the U.S.
The Institute of International Education is not the only organization with this idea in mind. The Norwegian Refugee Council is working in the refugee camps in Jordan teaching a variety of academic and vocational subjects. Spark, a Netherlands-based organization that helps young people in conflict-affected societies, has begun working with Turkish universities to help Syrian youth. Martina Sedlakova, the Syria Program Officer for Spark, says she has found regional programs to be more effective than scholarships.
Scholarships, she said at a session at the recent annual meeting of the European Association for International Higher Education, tend to just support “a small elite group of students lucky enough to have documentation when they flee the country.”
In the efforts of the Institute of International Education and its partners, they are trying to convince Jordan’s government to release Syrian students from the camps for the day. To try to increase the chances for approval, the consortium has also offered to help Jordanian students. Like many of Syria’s neighbors, Jordan is feeling the cost of playing host to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict and wants assistance.
As for the prospective Syrian students in the refugee camps themselves, they have had little to do for two years or more and they are growing increasingly frustrated.
See the three-minute Al-Fanar Media video “The Challenge of Education in the Refugee Camps.”