NEW YORK—When Sana Mustafa applied to join a six-week exchange program to the United States in June 2013, she did not expect to return immediately to her home country once the course ended. Her father, a political activist, was arrested by forces of the Syrian regime while she was away, and her family preferred that she remain outside the country to avoid the risk of being arrested herself. She had been arrested before, at the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011.
She had been a fourth-year student at the University of Damascus, studying business administration. She joined a student leaders exchange program in which she spent some time in Washington, DC, and some time at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. When the exchange program ended, she suddenly found herself without a university, without a job, without a family, and without a home. She was forced to move from one lodging to another, staying in nine different places in one year. To support herself, she worked as a babysitter and as a waitress in fast-food restaurants. Eventually she succeeded in obtaining political asylum. She got a grant to study political science at Bard College in New York and will graduate at the end of this calendar year.
“My path has not exactly been smooth,” she said. “But I was able to overcome most of the obstacles. I hope other Syrian students can do the same.”
Sana’s remarks were made during a meeting on online education for refugees held in New York City last month. The meeting included a small group of Syrian students.
Despite having heard Sana’s story once already, before the start of the conference, hearing her tell it from the conference platform was very moving.
Her story was very sad, especially since she has not seen her family for more than three years. She knows nothing about what happened to her father, and her mother and sister are stuck in Turkey.
But as a Syrian myself, I also felt proud to be able to bear witness to a young Syrian woman who learned English from watching television programs, worked in a series of jobs in a strange country, managed to secure a place for herself in an American university, and who had visited the White House the day before.
I asked her during the meeting about other difficulties she faced in the last three years. She said: “I was alone, and I did not find anyone willing to even offer the simplest information. And then by chance I discovered a scholarship on a Facebook page.”
Sitting with Sana on the platform were other Syrian students: Suhaib Ibrahim, Edgar Kaade, Riham Kusa and Fatima Alzoubi. They were from different towns in Syria, and from different social and religious backgrounds, but the circumstances of the war forced all of them to leave, and to try to live under a sky safe from the thunder of bombs, to live in lands free from the specter of arrest and detention.
Kaade obtained a scholarship to study for a master’s degree in biology at the University of Bonn after graduating in engineering from the University of Aleppo in 2014. While working as a Syrian Red Crescent volunteer, he saw many of the war’s horrors that have destroyed most of his city. He resolved to fulfill his scientific career.
“I was lucky. I got a scholarship,” he said. “If I got an opportunity to study online,” he said, “I would not have left Syria.”
Suhaib Ibrahim was from the city of al-Qamishli, in northern Syria. He got a scholarship to the Illinois Institute of Technology and then was fortunate enough to get a job as manager of a transportation-related project in Illinois after graduating with a degree in civil engineering. Before he got his scholarship, Suhaib studied at the universities of Aleppo and Damascus.
Today, alongside his job, Suhaib is active in a program at the Illinois Institute of Technology that supports Syrian students and offers them advice and the support they need to obtain scholarships and complete their education.
He said, “Looking back, I believe that the biggest obstacle for the majority of Syrian students is the lack of proper guidance. For most of them, submitting an application to study abroad is a completely new thing, except where someone has relatives or acquaintances studying abroad.” He said he wasted a year learning how to apply for scholarship programs properly.
As for Riham Kusa, her journey of getting to Germany and obtaining a scholarship to Columbia University was very long, and filled with complicated administrative problems.
She said, “I submitted more than seven applications for different scholarships. Every time, I would get a rejection letter, and I didn’t understand why.”
“Finally, I discovered that I needed to improve the standard of my English.”
After making progress in English, Riham was able to apply for European and American scholarship programs. She turned down prized European scholarships because she had her heart set on Columbia University Journalism School, but then ran into unexpected obstacle—getting a U.S. visa.
“My application was rejected the first time, but I got the visa the second time,” she said. “Nothing is guaranteed, but at the same time nothing is impossible, as long as you really want it.” (See Riham’s article: Palestinian Roots, Syrian Home, U.S. Destination)
By way of contrast, Fatima Zoghbi has had a more difficult time. She had a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Damascus. Her family came to Philadelphia as part of a United Nations program for the resettlement of Syrian refugees. She has been in the United States for more than seven months, but is struggling with competence in English. She received two months of free language classes, but then they were halted. As a result, she has so far been unable to realize her dream of studying for a master’s degree, or even to work, despite her urgent need to provide for herself and her family.
And she lost educational time before even arriving in Philadelphia. She said, “I spent three years in Jordan, and during that time I was not able to study because I was not in possession of the necessary official documents. . . I had hoped to complete my studies here, but now I am not able to communicate because of a big problem with English. I hope grants are available to study the language at least.”
The journeys of these students toward the goal of completing their education show that many young people are building new lives outside Syria. They exemplify the journeys of thousands of Syrian students, some of whom have succeeded in getting scholarships abroad, while more of them, remaining in neighboring countries, will continue to struggle to transform harsh personal realities.
Despite the availability of university scholarships, the conditions for obtaining them seem prohibitive, especially in view of the fact that most students lack the required personal and academic documents. (Read the related article: The Lack of Academic Documents is Ending Young Peoples’ Dreams.)
During the meeting, the students taking part were not indulging themselves in spinning tales about their personal experiences. Rather, they engaged the audience with true accounts for the benefit of their friends and colleagues inside and outside Syria.
From their point of view, the most conspicuous obstacle they faced was the absence of a guide or adviser to the world of scholarships, and choosing the most suitable from among them.
The students unanimously agreed on the importance of understanding the legal situation of refugees, and the circumstances in which they were living, before setting out the requirements of scholarships. They also voiced a need for psychological support for students.
All of the students expressed their interest in the idea of online education for refugees, but they were clear that its success would depend on the system used for admission; the language of instruction; which subject specializations would be available; and how much help and tutoring the students would get to overcome obstacles. But above all, any diplomas issued must be recognized by the labor markets and governments of host countries.
The enthusiasm of these students was obvious, despite the difficulties they faced and will continue to face. They expressed their happiness at making the voices of Syrian students heard, and in discussing ways to support them. Despite the fact that their panel was only scheduled for the morning, the students wanted to attend the entire conference. But, Riham apologetically excused herself early, needing to return to her class at Columbia, which she described as “intense.”
After the meeting, one of the participants whispered to me, “Those people are really inspiring.”
I said to him, “And they deserve help, certainly.”
He replied enthusiastically, “Of course! But there are fewer opportunities to help than there are students.”
“I believe they are the true opportunity,” I said. “An opportunity we must not allow to go to waste!”
Rasha Faek the managing editor of Al-Fanar Media, you can follow her on Twitter @RashaFaek