Ahmad Hakim isn’t sure whether he’ll leave war-torn Syria as a student or refugee.
Hakim, 25, would love to enroll in graduate studies in English literature at the Free University of Berlin in Germany, but obstacles to Syrians seeking higher education abroad—including tight competition for scholarships—are making that goal increasingly far-fetched.
Attending a German university requires six months of German language courses, a trip to Lebanon for a student visa, and various fees.
Alternatively, the perilous trek across the Mediterranean Sea or through Southern Europe requires hiring a smuggler.
Both options would cost around $9,000. He has the money, but spending it on preparations to study abroad would leave him nothing for tuition and other school expenses unless he lands a substantial scholarship and help with living expenses. As a refugee, he might have a better chance of survival in a European camp, assuming he could safely get to a Western European country.
“We lost everything,” said Ahmad, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from Damascus University two years ago. “It took me two years to realize that I can’t build a life here under artillery fire. My family still has some savings. Moving to Germany would be our last investment.”
Foreign higher education has become a popular option for Syrians seeking to flee their country, leading to a flood of applications to highly competitive academic programs. (See related article: A Statistical Portrait of Syrian Frustration .)
After five years of the civil war that displaced more than four million people, around half of the country’s university students can’t attend courses due to fighting or destruction related to the war, according to the Said Foundation in the United Kingdom.
That situation is leading them to search overseas. “Most of our applicants want to continue their studies and don’t see any chance to do so in war-torn Syria,” said Christian Huelshoerster, a scholarship officer with the German Academic Exchange Service, Germany’s chief supporter of international education.
But many of those Syrian applicants are ill-prepared to find a safe haven on campuses in Europe, the United States or elsewhere. Many students simply can’t meet the standards of university programs and scholarship applications they view as their last hope for survival.
“There’s a big gap between the needs of Syrians desperate to escape their country’s violence and what’s on offer around the world,” said Shatha Alkhalil, a doctoral student at Technische Universität Ilmenau in Germany. “Additionally, Syrians face other hurdles to studying abroad, and many are not prepared to compete for the few slots where they might be eligible to study.”
Alkhalil understands the hurdles that face Syrian students seeking funding to study abroad, because she overcame them. She now has a research grant, but earned a master’s degree in photonics and optics at Friedrich Schiller University-Jena on a scholarship funded by German industry, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the local government of Thuringia.
Now she devotes nearly two hours a day to maintaining a Facebook page dedicated to helping Syrian students obtain scholarships to study abroad. The page has around 27,000 followers.
The problems for many Syrians seeking to study abroad start in their own country, said Alkhalil and others. The poor quality of Syrian schools, the lack of an emphasis on critical thinking and other obstacles keep many Syrian students from realizing their dreams of escaping war through academia.
Germany, for example, doesn’t recognize degrees from most Syrian universities, said Huelshoerster. Students from recognized universities, meanwhile, sometimes have poor grades, he said, often through no fault of their own. Some Syrian students complain that professors give them a hard time. Some Syrian professors, said Alkhalil, “believe that giving students low grades, even when they are excellent, reflects favorably on the teacher.”
While this is not always true, when it is, it makes it difficult for a student to go on to another university.
Syrians also often do not know how to apply for scholarships at Western universities.
“There is a real defect in how Syrian students present themselves as academics in the scholarships’ statement of interest letters,” said Reem, a former lecturer at a Syrian university who now studies in Malaysia and asked that her full name not be used.
Many Syrians face challenges writing scholarship essays because their primary motivation for seeking to study abroad is survival, not academic advancement, said Reem. They can’t blend both needs in a single appeal. “This appears obvious to scholarship recruiters,” she said.
Cultural obstacles also come into play.
Souad Aboshameh, 25, waited until the last minute to tell her father that she had secured a spot in a master’s degree program in nutrition at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium in the Erasmus Mundus program. He wouldn’t have allowed her to leave Syria if not for the war and the financial aid she received.
“I hadn’t told my family that I was leaving until I got my visa to Belgium three days before my flight,” said Aboshameh. “It was kind of last-minute decision for my dad, who eventually agreed.”
The scholarship changed her life. “I consider myself blessed to get a scholarship just six months after graduation,” said Aboshameh, adding that she would likely be earning $150 a month as a pharmacist —barely enough to survive—if she had stayed in Damascus.
Alkhalil said she started her Facebook page to help qualified students surmount the hurdles that prevent them from even being in the running for foreign schools and scholarships. Would-be students in Syria are desperate, she said.
“Between the choice of losing your life with a mortar shell or leaving the country for a better place where you can embrace your gifts, I am with the second option,” she said.
Hakim is among those desperate prospective students. He is still trying to determine whether he’ll get to Germany as a student, or through a long journey through Turkey and the Balkans, or on a raft on the Mediterranean.
“If I don’t get a student visa, I might think of the alternative,” he said. “I would still prefer to be a student rather than a refugee.”