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First Refugee Scholarship Program Experiences Rapid Growth

CAIRO—After suffering through a ten-day siege in Syria without food or electricity, in October of 2012, Fatima al-Batoul Fawakherji and her family took an old bus from Jericho, southwest of Idlib, and made a 16-hour journey to Lebanon. Fatima was able to enter public secondary school in Beirut and now studies physics at Lebanese University.

The latest phase of her educational journey has gotten international support. “That would not have been possible without the scholarship I got from the DAFI program,” she said.

The UN Refugee Agency, also known as UNHCR, provides the scholarships through the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative Fund, or DAFI. The program, supported by the German government, was the first major scholarship program in the world that helped young refugees enter higher education. Since the program began in 1992, more than 12,000 refugee students have benefited.

“The Syrian crisis has highlighted the importance of providing higher-education opportunities for refugees more than ever before, especially since access to universities had already been available to many of them,” said Maren Kroeger, the tertiary education officer at UNHCR, in an interview. “Besides, the continuation of the war for years makes it necessary to provide more aid than just urgent, humanitarian relief.”

Rapid Growth in Scholarships

Last year, DAFI supported more than 4,600 students, 44 percent of them women, to access higher education in 37 countries of asylum. Thirty-nine percent of the scholarship recipients are Syrian, 15 percent are Afghan, and 10 percent are Somalian. That is an increase by 89 percent compared to 2015, according to Kroeger.

DAFI students in Egypt at a group meeting. (Photo credit: UNHCR)

The increase largely targeted Syrian students—1,790 Syrian students benefitted from the DAFI scholarships—but also refugees in sub-Saharan Africa and Afghani refugees in Iran, Pakistan and India.

In the MENA region, Turkey hosts the most scholarship recipients, followed by Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and the Kurdistan region of Iraq, according to Kroeger. “We are trying to increase the number of students this year and include other countries as well,” she said. “But we and the students face many challenges.”

In general, refugee students face difficult living conditions. Besides the financial difficulties, DAFI students, like many other young refugees, face obstacles in completing their school and university education due to the lack of many personal or academic documents. (See a related story: “The Lack of Academic Documents is Ending Young People’s Dreams”).

Vick Ikobwa, senior regional education officer in the regional office in Amman, explained the conditions students must meet to get into the program. Students must be refugees or asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR and must have UNHCR documents proving their identity. Students must apply for scholarships in the country they are registered in. UNHCR, he said, also seeks to place students only at universities recognized by the government of the host country where they live, so they will get a recognized degree.

Higher Fees Mean Fewer Scholarships

Changes in the policies of host governments are another challenge to the program’s work.

Last year, the Egyptian government reversed a decision to treat Syrian students as Egyptian students, and universities began to treat them more like international students who must pay higher fees if their secondary school diploma is not Egyptian, according to Mohammed Shawky,  the DAFI education officer at UNHCR in Egypt. That will limit the ability of the agency to increase the number of scholarships.

But the DAFI program is still offering 330 scholarships this year in Egypt, up from five scholarships in the country in 2013, according to Shawki.

“We have made significant progress that has encouraged donors to increase their support to us,” he said. “But we still have a lot to do.”

Besides paying university fees for the students who are accepted, DAFI gives them monthly stipends to help them pay for basic supplies and transportation fees. The students also get health insurance and counseling.

In Lebanon, Fatima al-Batoul Fawakherji  says she faced a great deal of discrimination. With one-quarter of the population of Lebanon now refugees, many Lebanese view Syrians as stealing jobs and living off the Lebanese government. “We are constantly insulted,” she said, “but the situation is better now, especially since DAFI starts to do a lot of activities that bring us together with Lebanese students. This helps us to introduce ourselves in a good way.”

DAFI students celebrate the 25th anniversary of the scholarships at the Lebanese University-Alhadath. (DAFI in Lebanon Facebook page)

DAFI has other advantages as well.

“I have finally joined the university, two years after I got a high school diploma in Yemen,” said Khalid Mulla, a 20-year-old Yemeni student who got a DAFI scholarship to study medicine at Menoufia University, in Cairo. “Among the program’s advantages is that it does not require getting a new high school diploma.”

Students Seek Stipend Increase

But the DAFI students complain their stipend is inadequate, especially in Egypt with the recent onset of fierce inflation. The stipend ranges from 1,200 Egyptian pounds ($67) during the  summer holiday to 2,000 pounds ($112). “This obliges me and other students to work to supplement our living expenses,” says Marwan Karnabeh, a Syrian student at 6th of October University.

The scholarships pay for only four years of university, which means students in academic disciplines that require longer courses of study, such as medicine, have to find additional funds.

Zahra Adnan, a fourth-year Syrian student at Menoufia University’s medical school, knows that her DAFI support will end this year. DAFI is trying to help her find additional scholarships. “I hope that will come true from the depth of my heart, because I will never be able to complete my studies at my own expense,” she said.

Most of the students say they learned about the scholarship almost by accident, often initially on social media. “Access for students varies from country to another,” said Kroeger. “But we generally use a variety of means, including advertising at UNHCR centers, both inside and outside the camps, and also through social networks. The students enrolled in the program themselves also tell their friends.”

Coordination Sought

Ikobwa, the education officer in Jordan, emphasizes the importance of cooperation between the organizations trying to support refugee higher education. “Data exchange between institutions helps better understand the needs along with reaching larger numbers of refugees,” he said.

Communication with other international institutions can also strengthen programs, UNHCR officers say. “We have a lot of experience in the field of refugee protection, while other organizations such as the DAAD have greater academic experience,” said Kroeger. “So, a joint collaboration would help us to deliver more sophisticated support programs without having to reinvent the wheel.”

Ikobwa also believes that organizations supporting refugees should lobby together to help change restrictive government policies that limit refugee education. This, alongside the DAFI program, could help countries hosting refugees as well as the refugees themselves, he said.

This year, the DAFI program seeks greater funding to support refugee students from West African countries and most likely in other regions.

“We are working to increase the number of scholarships and support more students, not only to help them find jobs or provide them with experience to rebuild their homelands after the wars, but also to protect them from despair and frustration,” said Kroeger.


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