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Scholarship Programs Gear Up to Help Syrian Youth

ISTANBUL—The Syrian refugee crisis is one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our age. As governments and development organizations mobilize to face it, there is a growing commitment to providing higher education to the hundreds of thousands of young Syrians whose university years have been interrupted.

At a workshop in Istanbul early this month, participants ranging from established government agencies to start-up organizations shared information about an array of new programs that have begun to provide more young Syrians the chance to pursue higher education. The event was organized by Al-Fanar Media, the British Council, and the non-profit organization SPARK, which has its headquarters in Amsterdam and focuses on higher education and entrepreneurship in conflict-affected societies.

“We are reaching the next stage, when a lot of programs have started and are scaling up,” said Yannick Dupont, director of SPARK. “A lot of resources have become available since the migration crisis to Europe.” It is now important, he says, to focus on synergy and on “working very efficiently and cost-effectively.”

This year SPARK, with support from the Dutch government, has recently granted scholarships to 1,500 Syrian students. It plans to grant a total of 3,500 scholarships in 2016 and, eventually, ten thousand scholarships with its current funding. Its partners include organizations such as the Lebanese Association for Scientific Research, which will help 460 Syrian students enroll at private universities in Lebanon in 2016, and Gaziantep University, in eastern Turkey, which currently has 1,300 Syrian students.

The Higher and Further Education Opportunities and Perspectives for Syrians (HOPES) program is funded by the European Union’s Madad Fund, and administered by the German Academic Exchange Program (DAAD), the British Council, Campus France and EP—Nuffic, the Netherlands’ organization for international cooperation in higher education. The HOPES program should disburse 400 scholarships to Syrian students, provide English classes to 4,000 and provide educational counseling to over 42,000. Another component of the program is to give small grants for credit-based short courses and other innovative measures by universities in the region.

The Al Fakhoora Program, funded by Qatar’s Education Above All Foundation, will grant 800 scholarships to Syrian students. It has begun pilot projects in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The program was first developed for Palestinian students and has a comprehensive approach that emphasizes student services, leadership training and the economic empowerment of the student and his or her family.

The United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been giving university scholarships since 1992; its DAFI program enrolls 2,240 refugee students each year. Dunja Markovic, tertiary education associate at UNHCR, said she has never seen demand for higher education at the current levels and that she expects to see a significant increase in the program to meet it, with as many as 1,700 new scholarships coming soon for Syrian students.

UNESCO has received $5 million from Kuwait to provide higher education to young Syrians. A majority of the funds will go towards scholarships at universities in the region. Other activities will include studying the legal frameworks of countries in the region regarding higher education and creating an online data clearinghouse.

“A shift happened in the last few years,” said a UNESCO consultant, Abdel Moneim Osman, and now higher education is increasingly “considered a right during humanitarian emergencies.”

But with so many different governmental agencies, NGOs and universities scrambling to try to help Syrian refugees pursue their studies, program administrators are concerned about duplicating efforts and making sure that the funding that is finally available is put to the best use.

Many educational programs have faced high drop-out rates in the past. Refugee students require extra financial support, such as stipends and funds for books and transportation. They often need to work to help support their families, which can pull them away from their studies. They may apply to many different programs or suddenly relocate.

Online learning is one tool many see as key to providing more refugee students access to educational resources, although the technological route faces skepticism as well. The British Council’s LASER program, funded by the European Union, seeks to reach at least 2,930 displaced Syrians of higher-education age in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, providing them with English language classes and online courses. The NGO Kiron Open Higher Education hopes to enroll thousands of Syrian students in its blended learning offerings this year.

But many participants emphasized the need for contextualizing and facilitating online learning, which can present particular challenges—linguistic and technological—for refugees. Many providers believe that additional tutoring and in-person help will be needed for Syrian students, since many of them are not familiar with the online mode of learning and have been out of the classroom for several years.

The majority of the new scholarship programs emphasize enrolling Syrian students at universities in the region, where the bulk of the Syrian refugee community still lives. Delivering education there is more cost effective and will make the refugees’ eventual return to Syria easier, for those who choose to return, providers believe. But countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon require documentation, such as certified copies of exam results or transcripts of university work they have completed, which many refugees have left behind and have no means to obtaining. Although Turkey has experimented with exams in lieu of some documents, no clear solution to the problem of missing documents has yet been found in any country. (See a related commentary, A Lack of Academic Documents is Ending Young People’s Dreams.)

The question of credentials and their transferability is one that education providers need to keep in mind, said Markovic of the UNHCR. No one can decide for any one student where they will live or study in the future. That element of uncertainty is just one facet of the larger question of what education is most useful to students—depending on whether they settle in their host country, in another country in a few years, or back in Syria one day.

We are witnessing a “huge investment and huge expectations” said Markovic. “We need to ensure efforts we are making now won’t be wasted in a year’s time.”

“The easy part is sending them to university,” said Farooq Burney, director of the Al Fakhoora program. “What’s going to happen after that, that is the question.”

Prospective students interested in applying for the SPARK scholarships can apply here. 

 A more extensive report on the workshop’s discussion and findings will be available on the Al-Fanar Media web site soon.


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