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New Universities To Teach Syrian Refugees

The last year has seen a new feature of the effort to deliver higher education to the Syrian youth displaced by the long-running war in their country—institutions tailored solely for Syrian students.

These efforts are combining with existing endeavors to deliver an education to Syrian students in refugee camps and in regional universities. And for an elite few, scholarships and other financial support make it possible for refugee youth to study in the West.

The Institute of International Education, a U.S. independent non-profit organization, estimates there are 40,000 to 50,000 university-qualified students in Turkey alone. But, says James King, a senior research and communications manager at IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund, the number of Syrian students enrolled in Turkish universities represents just 3 percent of university-age Syrian students.

Now, at least three universities are either proposed or up and running in Turkey. Zakat University, started by an American Muslim foundation; Turkey Qatar University, proposed by those countries’ national governments, and the Middle East Peace University Project, which has the backing of the Turkish educational entrepreneur Enver Yücel.

Zakat University was founded by the Zakat Foundation of America—a Muslim foundation—and takes its name from the third pillar of Islam, referring to systematic charitable giving.

The executive director of the foundation, Halil Demir, says the university hopes to create Syrian professionals who can rebuild their country and to prevent extremists from ensnaring more Syrian youth.

“Extremism is able to collect people because there’s no hope,” says Demir, the foundation’s executive director. “As long as humans have hope, they’ll resist. Giving university opportunities is a hope for them,” he added.

Zakat University has 15 full-time and 20 part-time faculty members. It is housed in a repurposed six-story building in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep. It has a cafeteria, a library and 36 classrooms.

Critically, the lessons at Zakat University will be in Arabic—eliminating the language barrier which usually prevents Syrians from attending Turkish universities.

The university is less than 75 miles from Aleppo and is waiting for the first cohort of students to start walking its halls and attending its lectures. “We’re new, the painting has just finished and we’re waiting for it to dry,” jokes Demir.

The university expects classes to start at the end of September. The border near Gaziantep is relatively porous, and control on the Syrian side is constantly in flux. There are already high numbers of refugees and regular inflows of new ones. For Zakat University, that means there should be plenty of prospective students.

Zakat University says 120 students have signed up as of early August, but it hopes more students will apply before the first classes begin. The university only offers five subjects—computer science, education, management, the humanities and social sciences.

The institution started on a shoestring. The upfront costs came in somewhere close to $200,000, and Demir estimates that it will take a minimum of $20,000 a month in maintenance to keep the school open, though he’s prepared for that to reach as high as $250,000 if the number of enrolled students increases significantly, which he hopes it will, up to a maximum capacity of 400 students.

On top of the maintenance, the university’s employees are paid. Demir says the salaries are not generous and he hopes to eventually pay faculty members more. He says the professors also understand the university is there to provide a much-needed service to Syrian refugees—and not to be a business. Student fees, if any, will be low.

In May 2015, Turkey and Qatar announced ambitious plans to establish a Turkish Qatari University, also in Gaziantep province, to serve the Syrian refugees there. The announcement also stipulated that it would help to foster scientific cooperation between Turkey and Qatar—although the form and extent of that cooperation was not explained.

The Qatari-backed initiative came about following a visit to a refugee settlement in the Gaziantep province by the mother of Qatar’s ruler and Turkey’s first lady.

The proposed university is still in the planning stages, with the Turkish ministry of education looking for potential land to give to the project.

Some experts already doubt whether the model of separate universities for Syrians is a good idea. Esraa Mohamed, an education assistant at the United Nations Refugee Agency in Cairo, worries that it could marginalize Syrian students more than they already are.

She prefers educating Syrians alongside students from the host country they’re in. Mohamed says that the UN refugee agency isn’t anticipating that the refugee problem will be swiftly resolved, which she says makes integration all the more important. To her, a parallel system that separates Syrian students from host nation students goes against integration and toward isolation.

“It’s not a durable solution,” she says.

King also believes a “protracted refugee situation” is likely. “The more that Syrians can integrate into the Turkish higher education system, even though that’s politically sensitive,” he says, “the more they’re going to be able to sustain themselves long term.”

But Zakat University and similar institutions point to the meager number of Syrians enrolled at universities within the host nation’s education system as justification for their efforts.

With few Syrian students speaking Turkish, only two routes into the Turkish system exist for them: Intensive programs to learn the language, or separate programs at Turkish universities but taught in Arabic, which some believe are not that different from separate institutions.

A long-term issue for Syrian students is to make sure that any degrees they earn from new universities have value. James King, of IIE, says he hopes that new universities will be recognized by the Turkish Higher Education Council or other international bodies.

Without accreditation or other certification from an independent body, potential employers and other universities can’t be sure of the quality of Zakat’s education—making opportunities after graduation slim.  Formal accreditation takes a long time, but Demir realizes the importance of it.

Zakat University is currently in talks with two Turkish universities and one in Sudan. Demir hopes to grant degrees from Zakat in collaboration with these institutions and piggyback on their accreditation. “By the time the first students come to graduation, we hope to have convinced [other institutions] to issue degrees with us,” he says.

He declined to name the universities that Zakat is in negotiations with—for fear of scuppering the potential deals.

The Turkish entrepreneur Enver Yücel has previously called for a network of university campuses designated for Syrian refugees to be built in Turkey’s border cities close to the Syrian frontier.  He also proposed employing exiled university professors in the refugee camps to work at these universities.

Yücel did not respond to interview requests to learn about the progress of the Middle East Peace University Project, but other sources expressed concerns that the project could be on hold.

Projects such as these institutions are often started with the best of intentions. But when the reality of complying with Turkish regulations and laws sets in and the difficulty of raising enough money to run them becomes apparent, administrators acknowledge it can become a challenge to galvanize those goals into something both meaningful and sustainable.


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