A Conversation with Jorge Sampaio, Head of the Global Platform for Syrian Students

BRUSSELS — After a long history of political, diplomatic and philanthropic activity, the former president of Portugal, Jorge Sampaio, has put all of his expertise at the service of Syrian students.

“Education not only saves lives in emergencies, but it also sustains life by giving a sense of hope for the future,” he said, in concluding a two-day conference held in Brussels in December on higher education in emergencies. The meeting was organized by the Global Platform for Syrian Students, a program that Sampaio leads and that seeks to provide scholarships and emergency academic assistance to Syrian students.

Sampaio served as the president of Portugal from 1996 to 2006. As president, his actions were mainly focused on education, social issues, human rights and European and international affairs. He has a reputation for being a good listener and someone who carries himself with humility and respect for others.

He was appointed in May 2006 by the United Nations Secretary-General as his Special Envoy to Stop Tuberculosis. In April 2007, he was appointed as the High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations. He is a member of the board of trustees of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. He also heads the jury of the Calouste Gulbenkian International Prize, which awards 250,000 euros each year for a person or an institution who has stood out “in defense of values essential to the human condition.”

Sampaio himself is a strong defender of the right to human dignity and the need to respect all religions, while at the same time separating religion from politics.

Al-Fanar Media sat down with president Sampaio during the Brussels conference, where he spoke about how education could play a main role in building peace in Middle East.

Why did you start the Global Platform for Syrian Students? 

After finishing my mandate with United Nations 2012-2013 and with the terrifying things we were seeing in Syria at the moment we wanted to do something to help people there especially as there was nothing focused on higher education in that moment. So, we decided to do something interesting and good for someone and this is how it has started.

Conflicts deny generations the knowledge and opportunities that an education can provide. At the same time, education in emergencies ensures dignity and sustains life. It also mitigates the psychosocial impact of conflict and disasters by giving a sense of routine, stability, structure and hope for the future.

What has the platform achieved so far?

The platform has a program of scholarships that relies upon an academic consortium made up of universities that offer partial or full tuition fees for Syrian students, whose education has been interrupted by the crisis. Till now, almost 150 students have resumed their studies (namely 45 in Portugal) with $2.5-million raised.

What are the main challenges?

Actually, we have around 700 university seats available with tuition fee waivers but they are at risk of being wasted due to a funding gap of $5 million for top-up scholarships. [The extra money is needed to pay for students’ daily expenses, housing, travel and other affiliated costs.]

What are the solutions other than scholarships for Syrian students, which seem to be an expensive solution?

We are looking for solutions and that is why we called for this meeting. We want to share experiences and discuss possible ways to provide education to the largest possible number of students. But we also have hundreds of available scholarships and we want to get use of them as they are really great opportunities.

What about the cooperation with universities in the Arab region? 

We have already some cooperation with some universities in Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and Turkey. Also we have some Arab donors and of course we are looking for more cooperation and support.

What did you hope to achieve with the conference? 

The most important thing is to get together. There are many activities and things going on in several countries. We all need to know what works and what does not. So we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Of course, we all want to keep working independently with liberty. But if we can manage to find a coalition to add up pressure so governments take the necessary supportive decisions that will be very helpful.

The Arab world is drowning in conflict today, can education play a role in bringing peace?

Education is essential as it enhances development and stability. You have to prepare the young generation to find and consolidate their identities. I can see that Arab young people are very eager to learn and go forward and this make up the future of any country. This youth richness in the Arab world is fantastic and should not be ignored. Personally, I hope that plurality of visions of religion and admission of this could play a very big role in the stability and development of the region. Of course, this needs more and more education to have open minds.

On the other hand, there is a fundamental concept, which is human dignity. Everyone wants a life with human dignity that is of great value whatever your religion is. This is essential, a common ground on which we have to build on and this concept cannot be implemented without offering good education.

Have you learned anything new at the conference?

Well, I am always learning and I am amazed with the participants’ experience and how they find ways to help. Also, I know more now about the obstacles that face similar projects. And I have more questions about how we could help more not only in getting education opportunities but also in finding jobs. Learning has no ending. This conference gave us a chance to meet and exchange ideas and we need to build on it to move forward.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.


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