News & Reports

A Novel Approach to Getting Syrian Students Into Universities

Mustapha Jazar and his organization, the Lebanese Association for Scientific Research, use a unusual approach to make sure hundreds of Syrian refugee students can attend university this autumn—an education that would have otherwise passed them by.

None of the soon-to-be students are wealthy, but neither do they come from the poorest and most vulnerable ranks of Syria’s exiled refugees. They all come from lower middle class families—and that was on purpose.

Jazar, the association’s vice president, says it all boils down to a question of practicality. He wants to make sure that as many students as possible make it to graduation. “We don’t try to help people with nothing at all because in our experience they’ll stop studying to take a job to survive,” explains Jazar. “Our target is someone who isn’t obliged to take a full-time job.”

When considering the financial resources of an applicant, the association doesn’t explicitly ask for parental income. Jazar doesn’t trust the answer. Instead he determines whether the applicant is the oldest male in the family and if there’s another person in the family with an income.

Some observers of efforts to help refugees say they’re pleased to learn that the association is offering scholarships to Syrians in Lebanon, but expressed unease over the organization’s use of informal means testing to rule out poorer applicants. Others admire Jazar’s approach as a practical one.

Iyad Matta is one of the new winners of the scholarships. In 2012, he and his family had to flee the city of Homs when he was in the third year of studying for an education degree. When he arrived in Lebanon he tried to pick up where he left off, but found himself blocked by the Lebanese system. “The university would not consider my previous study,” he says.

He didn’t want to start again from scratch, given that he is 24 years old, because of the time and money involved, but he also knew his prospects would be limited without a degree. “I want to complete my study as it’s my only way to a better future,” he says. He is excited to start classes soon.

Another new grantee, 25-year-old Abdul Basset from Homs, said it was refreshing to be treated with dignity. “They deal with us in a very nice and respectful way,” he said.

This will be the third year that the Lebanese Association for Scientific Research has supported Syrian refugees. The organization has placed 250 students in universities over the past two years. This summer, it offered another 220 scholarships for students to begin their studies this autumn. Jazar’s team is still evaluating applications and hopes to offer funding to 280 more students to start in the coming semester. That addition would bring the total to 750 students.

The association received 2,000 applications for the new scholarships they have just awarded. From that pool they asked the best to come for interviews at locations across Lebanon.  Only half showed up. “We don’t exactly know why,” admits Jazar, “But some of these students don’t have official residency cards, so they can’t travel if there’s a police control along the route.”

Jazar’s organization has partnered with four private universities, where he has negotiated discounts—up to 75 percent off standard tuition. The association then pays the remaining 25 percent.

The four universities where successful applicants are to be placed include the University of Tripoli, Al Jinan University, Lebanese International University and Arts Sciences and Technology University.

James King, a senior research and communications manager at the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund, says Jazar’s model of awarding scholarships is compelling. “It’s a very pragmatic model,” he says.

Prior to enrollment, Jazar’s organization puts the students through an intensive English language course. That serves two purposes, explains Jazar. “It allows us to both improve their English and weed out those who aren’t serious,” he says. Any students who don’t show up to the language school will find their scholarship at risk.

Dawn Chatty, a professor at Oxford University’s refugee studies center, was excited to hear about the scholarship program. “I think it’s terrific that it’s happening, it helps to make sure there isn’t an entirely lost generation,” she says, referring to the idea that Syria’s youth risk living without education or employment opportunities.

Despite her initial enthusiasm about the program, she remains reticent about the exclusion of poorer refugees.  She says it might be worth reconsidering that aspect of the program.

She added that if a prospective student has gone to the trouble of applying for the grants, they’ll be unlikely to drop out. “If they’re trying to go to university then it suggests to me that their family is ready to make the sacrifice,” she explained. “No family is going to let them apply for university unless they’re ready to support them at all costs.”

Regardless, Jazar is clearly proud of his growing program, and hopes to be able to offer even more scholarships in the future. For him, getting young Syrian refugees back to university couldn’t be more important. “This provides a real alternative to gang life or ISIS,” he says.

Motiaa Hallak, a journalist based in Lebanon, contributed to this article.


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