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Even in Egypt, Syrian Refugees Struggle to Access Higher Education

CAIRO—For Tamer Mohammed Yasser, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee, the idea of getting a university degree is out of the question.

He tried. But expenses including books, transportation to campus and meals on the go amounted to more than the roughly $100 he earns every month working as en electrician. Plus, the money is needed at home, where it helps support his mother and two siblings. “It’s hard now,” said Yasser, “because just me and my father are working.”

In Egypt, Syrian undergraduates can attend public universities on the same footing as local students—almost for free, aside from expenses and various fees. Yet some refugees like Yasser remain unable to cover even seemingly marginal costs or much more substantial enrollment fees to enter master’s degree or doctoral programs, leaving them in in limbo between a conflict they left back home and prospects for building a better future.

“A lot of people’s dreams have been demolished,” said Saber Mohammed, 28, a Syrian living in Egypt.

Academics and university students are among the 3.9-million Syrians who have sought refuge in Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq since civil war erupted in their country in early 2011. More than 133,000 Syrians have registered with UNHCR in Egypt, where refugees—not including Sudanese—are usually required to pay thousands of dollars in tuition fees to attend the nation’s public universities.

For Syrians, however, Egypt has altered its policy: Syrians are exempt from the foreign-student tuition rule and can enroll in public primary and secondary schools as well as in state-run universities. That gives them access to education that many Syrian refugees in other countries don’t have. An Egyptian policy does, however, require Syrians to pay 500 Egyptian pounds, or about $65, for each year of university that they missed as a result of their country’s conflict.

This year, more than 14,500 undergraduate Syrian refugee students are attending Egypt’s public higher learning institutions, according to UNHCR. “Of any other country in the region, I think Egypt punches way above its weight,” said Mohammed Shawky, assistant education officer at UNHCR in Egypt.

The adjusted policy, however, is fragile since it must be renewed annually, and rumors flare up periodically that Egyptian ministries will revoke Syrians’ educational privileges. “But I don’t think they will revoke access to higher education,” Shawky said. “I’m quite hopeful that they will not do it.”

Saber Mohammed, the 28-yeard-old Syrian refugee, said the tuition exemption also used to apply to Syrians seeking master’s degrees, which is why he came to Egypt three years ago and enrolled at Ain Shams University. He completed one year in a master’s program before he was told he would have to pay 2,200 British pounds or about $3,300 to complete his degree—the rate he said he would be charged as a foreign student.  His dream to get an advanced degree, he says, “became an illusion, a ghost, because of the expenses.”

Opportunities for young refugees are critical as many are at an age where they are looking to study, start work, get married or start a family. Limited prospects are among the factors that drive many to risky alternatives.

Last year, more than 218,000 refugees and migrants—many of them Syrians, Eritreans and Iraqis—irregularly crossed the Mediterranean from Libya, Egypt and other countries with the aim of reaching Europe. At least 3,500 died while trying to make the journey, according to UNHCR. Many others are detained.

Some university-age Syrian refugees who remain in the region have tried to make the best of their situation. Yet, even in Egypt, they struggle with the Egyptian curriculum or face bureaucratic obstacles that make enrollment hard.

“Lots of Syrians are coming with ambition and energy, and they are passionate,” said Fatima Idriss, director of Tadamon, a non-governmental organization assisting refugees in Egypt. But, she said, “The system itself is difficult.”

Refugees face many of the same hardships as their local counterparts, including overcrowded classrooms and poor educational quality. “There are so many people in lectures—people stand and some sit on the floor—so it’s hard to hear what’s going on,” said Rasha Mohammed, a Syrian refugee who came with her family to Egypt two years ago from Homs.

Mohammed said she wasn’t able to study English literature at Cairo University as she had hoped since bureaucratic hurdles delayed her enrollment. She also had to pay the special fee of 1,500 Egyptian pounds—about $196—for having missed three years of education because of her time as a refugee.

“A lot of people couldn’t pay the late fines and that was the reason they wouldn’t enroll,” said Mohammed. “Plus, there are costs of transportation, books—everything is expensive.”


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