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Group Seeks ‘Quantum Leap’ in Aid for Refugee Students

LISBON—In a calm, confident voice, Mariam Issa, a young Syrian engineer, explained how a scholarship to study for a master’s degree in civil engineering at the University of Minho had helped her to think and plan for her country’s reconstruction.

“This would not have been possible if I did not get this scholarship,” she said. “Coming to Portugal and joining the university here made me think differently.”

“I can say that the decision, perhaps made in a small room, to grant me this scholarship resembles, in its impact on my life, the ‘butterfly effect’ we hear of in physical theories,” Issa said, referring to the metaphor used to describe how small, initial incidents can generate larger, unexpected results later on.

Issa’s speech came during an international conference recently held here by the Global Platform for Syrian Students, a nonprofit organization started  in 2014 to provide emergency academic assistance to Syrian students to pursue their studies in 10 countries around the world. The platform’s founder, Jorge Sampaio, is a former president of Portugal who is now the organization’s chairman. Issa was one of the students the program supported during its first year.

The platform is embarking on a new project that Sampaio envisions as a tool for making a “quantum leap” in the assistance the group and its partners can provide.

The new initiative, announced during a conference session titled “Doing More, Better and Faster,” will coordinate governmental, charitable and institutional efforts with the goal of helping an increasing number of Syrian students more quickly get access to universities.

The project, called the Rapid Response Mechanism to Higher Education in Emergencies and Conflict-Affected Societies (RRM), seeks to provide academic opportunities to refugee youth and to provide universities in host countries with the necessary resources to admit these students and help them continue their education.

“As world’s hospitals have an emergency service system, we need to develop a clear emergency education system during crises and conflicts,” Sampaio said at the conference. The challenges facing refugees to complete their education in asylum countries are clear, he said, adding: “It is time to develop solutions.”

Universities are aware of their responsibility to help students complete their studies and to integrate them into their host communities, said Helena Barroco, the platform’s secretary general and an adviser to Sampaio. But they need support to do what they are required to do, she added.

“The initiative seeks to support universities in bridging the gap between them and students,” Barroco said. Its plans include establishing “a coordination mechanism to ensure that universities are properly accessible to refugee students, and that fair and professional admission procedures recognizing the different refugee conditions are in place,” she said. The mechanism will also work to ensure that “adequate funding is provided to cover students’ costs on an ongoing basis.”

The Rapid Response Mechanism will employ best practices and experiences that have been adopted over the past eight years by international institutions and nongovernmental organizations working with Syrian refugees. Its three components will be a consortium of participating academic institutions, a network of partner organizations to provide logistical support, and a financing effort that will raise and collect small donations from students and create an endowment with contributions from larger donors.

A one-year pilot for the mechanism will begin in September.

During the pilot period, each participating university will host at least five students from a crisis setting, exempt them from tuition and fees, and provide them with living expenses. Each university will also invite all of its professors, staff members and students to donate one dollar, one euro, or one British pound a year to a “youth education solidarity” fund as part of an effort to guarantee continuing financial support for the mechanism.

At the same time, organizations in the  partner network will hold joint activities for broader discussions on topics related to the pilot program. High-level joint meetings with governments and other interested parties are also expected.

“We need political will to bring about the required change and support,” Antonio Vittorino, a former European Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, said at the conference.

Those who attended the conference appeared to agree that political change is needed to improve refugees’ lives. But Barroco stressed that the initiative would be an informal platform for dialogue and cooperation among political decision makers and the participating institutions and organizations.

The initiative will not have formal managers during the pilot phase, but a coordination group of representatives from different institutions will be created to put the mechanism into effect and conduct follow-up sessions with participants before issuing a full report and recommendations for the operational phase, which is due to begin in September 2019.

“Remember that our collective future hangs in the balance. Students want to go on living, and they cannot continue to wait for us to find solutions,” said Sampaio. “The times call for collaborative effort, and it will be easier if we are all in it together. Our work and energies must not be fragmented as we develop solutions to this global crisis. We have to do more, better and faster. I am strongly convinced that RRM is a critical tool to achieve this goal. Let’s make a quantum leap.”


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