CAIRO—It was not possible for Samer, a 28 year old Syrian from the city of Hama, to get a scholarship to any Jordanian university, because he did not have his original high school diploma. Nor could he get legal residency there, despite having lived for more than two years in Irbid, a city in the north of Jordan. So he started thinking of going to Sudan, the one Arab country that still accepts Syrians without visas or other restrictions.
At first, the idea was strange to Samer. “All I knew about Sudan was that it was very hot in the summer, and that it had suffered from war and famine,” he said.
But Syrians’ posts on Facebook, especially from those who were living in Sudan, gave Samer a different perspective. “I communicated with many Syrians who are living there. I didn’t find the bleak picture that I expected,” he said. “The cost of living is much cheaper than in Jordan. And it’s possible for Syrians to work here without fear of prosecution or the threat of deportation.”
Today, about 133,000 Syrians are living in Sudan, according to statistics compiled by the Committee for the Support of Syrian Families in Sudan, a private, nonprofit organization. Most Syrians live in the capital, Khartoum, and most of them arrived after 2011. The committee says about 300 Syrians arrive at the Khartoum airport from Syria every month, while a greater number arrive from Jordan and Lebanon, which impose tough restrictions on entry and residency by Syrians.
In comparison, Syrians can easily enter and live in Sudan. Sudan doesn’t charge Syrians residency fees, unlike Lebanon, which imposes fees that can amount to hundreds of dollars each year for Syrians to continue to live legally. Sudan also makes it easy for Syrians to come and go as they wish, while Syrians who live in Jordan cannot return to the country if they leave, unless they have a very-hard-to-get work permit. Sudan also gives Syrian freedom to work, which they don’t have in Lebanon or Jordan, and free primary and secondary education in government schools. Syrians do not have to register as refugees, a status that many Syrians would rather avoid as they feel it puts them beneath the residents of other countries. In addition, many Syrians living in Sudan say they do not face the discrimination they often run into in other Arab countries.
Muhammad Jarkas, a Syrian in his third year of studying structural engineering at Omdurman Ahlia University, a private university in Khartoum, said, “I am very happy to be here. The Sudanese people are friendly, and studying is good and not expensive.”
Jarkas obtained his high school diploma in Al-Nabk, near Damascus, but because of the nearby conflicts his family sent him to study in Sudan. “I chose the country first of all because it was the only country which allowed me to enter legally and without restriction,” he said. “Later I did research to find a suitable university.”
There are 26 government universities in Sudan, and 32 private universities and colleges, according to Sudan’s ministry of higher education. About 150,000 students are admitted annually to institutions of higher education, according to the ministry’s 2013 figures. The country’s president, Omar al-Bashir, has said that Syrian students at government universities should be charged the same fees as Sudanese students. But priority to enroll at government universities is given to Sudanese students, so places for Syrians are scarce.
Muhammad Jarkas has paid $600 a year for his private university’s tuition, but the cost of tuition will rise steeply this year to about $2,000 annually, leaving Syrian students wondering if the universities are taking unfair advantage of the new demand. “Existing students will not be charged the new fees,” he said, “so I will continue to pay a reasonable amount. I am not completely certain that I would study here were I not able to pay what I have been paying for the past three years.”
In contrast, Anas Mustafa ‘Abd al-Razaq obtained a scholarship to study dentistry at the private International University of Africa in Khartoum from the Organization for the Care of Newcomers, a government-sponsored educational charity for foreign students.
“The cost of tuition at the college can reach $6,500 a year, but the scholarship spares me from having to pay such enormous fees,” he said.
He had studied engineering at al-Ba’ath University in Homs. After being arrested by regime forces, he traveled to Turkey, where he was unable to study because he didn’t know Turkish. So he flew to Sudan.
“Entering the country was easy,” he said. “However, I am unable to leave because no other country in the world accepts Syrians.”
Ayah Hinawi, who is studying medicine at the same private university, faces different difficulties in completing her university education.
“I did not get a scholarship, but the university fees were reasonable at first,” she said. “Then recently the fees increased and we were asked to pay them in U.S. dollars.” She will lose money changing her own funds into dollars.
While it is easy for Syrians to enter Sudan now, and there are ample opportunities to study there, Sudan’s own economy is hurting. Syrians don’t need work permits, but the reality is that few jobs are available for anyone.
The Sudanese government estimates the unemployment rate at 19 percent, and an even higher 25 percent among university graduates. The World Bank estimates Sudan’s unemployment rate at 44 percent.
Recently, the Egyptian media have started broadcasting reports about large numbers of Syrians entering Egypt illegally through Sudan, and about the Egyptian government forbidding entry to Syrians even at places where it is legal for them to cross the border. According to media reports, the cost of an illegal passage from Sudan to Egypt with smugglers is around $800—much cheaper smuggling fees than what refugees would pay to try to get to Europe. A Syrian smuggled into Egypt can then surrender to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Egypt and claim legal asylum to prevent deportation. But the Egyptian authorities arrest many such undocumented Syrians before they can register with UNHCR and send them back to Syria.
Six months have passed since Samer’s arrival in Khartoum from Amman, and he has been working for about four months as a bookkeeper for a restaurant. Egypt doesn’t appeal to him. He worries, however, about building a career in Sudan.
“The government and the people welcome us, and that is a wonderful thing, but opportunities for work are limited and wages are low,” he said. “I don’t think there is a future for me here.”