What should someone put in their suitcase as they prepare to leave their country? Money, some jewelry, summer and winter clothes, family pictures, and perhaps a toy from their childhood. They would certainly not forget identification documents, and of course they wouldn’t forget to take a certified, and possibly even translated, diploma.
But what if they did not have the time to prepare their suitcase? What if they were forced to leave their home at midnight under heavy bombardment or needed to escape from an imminent arrest? Would they remember family pictures, marriage and birth certificates, or diplomas? Suddenly they might have to run not just without identity papers, but even without shoes. Survival instincts kick in.
Every month, hundreds if not thousands of Syrians escape death, detention, or kidnapping to find themselves in neighboring countries with no documents to prove their names, ages, marital status, or academic achievement. Registering with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) allows many Syrians, like other refugees, prove their identity to the satisfaction of government agencies in the countries where they find themselves. Later on, some host countries such as Turkey issue identification cards to Syrians, providing temporary protection and enabling them to enjoy government services such as access to education and health care. In Jordan, the Ministry of Interior issues security cards to serve as personal documents for the Syrians in the Kingdom. But hundreds of Syrian students are unable to enroll in schools and universities even if they get Jordanian identification cards, as they do not have their Syrian identity cards or any documents to prove their academic standing. Educational institutions in Jordan demand both.
Last summer I visited a school on the outskirts of Amman that was operating in double shifts in order to absorb Syrian students. I was dismayed to see that some of the second-grade pupils were taller than me. “By the name of God, I was in the first grade, and I was very clever,” one of them told me. “But we left our home in Nawa with only our pajamas on. After two years of dropping out of school because of the difficult living conditions, I came back and was accepted in school. And here I am in the first grade.”
Two months ago, in a visit to the Zaatari refugee camp, a girl in her twenties at a computer in a caravan set up for e-learning whispered to me that she was taking an online English course, the language she has long dreamed of studying at university. The computer course is the best she can do, she said, as she had no hope of getting into a Jordanian university. “I finished my high school exams in Homs,” she said. “But I left my city before the announcement of results. Later on, I learned that I have passed, but I was never able to get my high school certificate.”
In Jordan, enrollment in schools outside the camps and the universities, requires Syrian identity papers, along with certified paper copies of the last academic degree obtained by the student. Students also must have the security card issued by the Ministry of Interior, which for adult students also requires them to have a paper copy of a lease and a Jordanian who will vouch for them. Some documents need to be certified by the government as authentic, but many students do not dare to visit the Syrian embassy in Amman to get documents certified. Men who have avoided mandatory military service, for example, can be arrested on the spot, as under international law they are on Syrian territory.
Some Syrians are forced to retake their high school exams in Jordan before returning to university.“Two years ago, I was a third-year civil engineering student at Damascus,” said Tasneem, a 20-year-old girl living in Amman. “Today, I am a first-year student at the college of commerce,” she said. Although she is about four years behind where she should be, she says: “I am not sad. I have been able to join the university again, even if in another specialty. My cousin was about to graduate from Baath University’s faculty of science in Homs, but she is currently doing nothing at her home in Istanbul because she does not have any proof of that. And she does not speak Turkish so she can’t take retake her high school exams.”
Syrian students’ enrollment in Jordanian universities is expensive, and once again their lack of documents gets in the way. They are treated as foreign students and asked to pay double the tuition charged to Jordanian students. Recently, an international program wanted to provide scholarships to a group of Syrian students in Jordan. But the scholarship program stumbled when the Jordanian Ministry of Education insisted that the students provide new Syrian identity papers as well as academic documents, which most of them do not have.
Officials in host countries say they want to make sure of students’ academic standing, which is logical in normal situations. But it is a crippling prerequisite for Syrian students.
In contrast, a long way from the Middle East, Mexico has started a program to receive Syrian students and is offering them visas. The Syrians are given temporary official documents with the condition they will take exams later to determine their academic standing before joining language courses and then the universities. “I was impressed with the inherent capabilities possessed by Syrian young people whom I met in the refugee camps,” said Adrian Melendez, who helped start the program. “I found highly educated and talented young people in those camps. If they wait, they will miss all their opportunities in this life.”
Melendez believes the tests are a good way to determine students’ academic standing. “The idea is centered around the need to give those young people the opportunity to finish their studies,” said Melendez. “There must be alternatives and facilitation, especially given that investment in educating people fleeing conflict zones might become one of the most important elements in rebuilding war-affected communities.”
Every time I hear about the suffering of Syrian students who want to complete their education, I go back to my closet to check my university degrees. I was lucky to have finished my education before the outbreak of the war, and I was able to pack my suitcase quietly and deliberately. I recently met Sarah, who works as a salesperson in a women’s clothing store in Beirut, and who holds a bachelor degree in pharmacy from Damascus University. Sarah told me: “If I knew that my escape from my burning house without my university degree would take me to this [situation], I would not have come out of it.”
*Rasha Faek is the managing editor of Al-Fanar Media. Follow her @RashaFaek