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Help for Syrian Students in Countries Close to Home

CAIRO—Over the past four years, the number of scholarships offered to refugees in the Arab region has increased. But thousands of young people still do not have access to university studies. This has led the Mediterranean Universities Union to embark on a new project focusing on universities in countries neighboring Syria to help them serve a larger number of refugee students in other ways.

“The provision of scholarships is important and necessary, but it is not enough alone,” said Marco di Donato, a researcher at the Mediterranean Universities Union, an independent organization of 103 universities in countries around the Mediterranean basin. “Other mechanisms must be used to support universities that receive refugee students and help them reach and communicate with students more effectively.”

UniMed, as the organization is known, already has experience in assisting European universities in their efforts to help refugee students. Now it is leading a new multipartner effort called Rescue: Refugees Education Support in MENA Countries that will help universities in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq establish “operational support units” for refugee students.

The units will offer support and advice on opportunities available for refugee and displaced students to complete their studies, and to better integrate them into university life. They will also provide services to help refugee students overcome the psychological problems they face, as well as training in the basic competencies necessary to help them get jobs later on.

“Through these units, we seek to bridge the gap between students and universities and help both parties understand the needs and requirements to ensure genuine support for refugees, not just good education,” said di Donato.

As of 2015, there were approximately 100,000 Syrians of college age in the Middle East and North Africa who were qualified for higher education, scholars said in a report prepared for Unesco last year. But only a fraction of these students were actually enrolled in universities. (See a related article, “More Syrians in Lebanon: Fewer in Universities.”)

Meanwhile, the number of scholarships providing full support available to these students during the past year did not exceed 10,000. (See a related document, “Fact File: Major Scholarship Programs for Syrians.”) Such scholarships typically cover tuition and fees, besides providing money for monthly expenses.

“It looks great,” said di Donato. “However, refugee students are not ordinary students; most of them need help, psychological support, advice and guidance on how to build their personalities and future lives, which we are trying to offer in our units within universities.”

So far, seven universities have agreed to establish support units. They are the Lebanese University, the Lebanese International University, and Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, in Lebanon; Al-Zaytoonah University of Jordan, Zarqa University, and Yarmouk University in Jordan; and the University of Dohuk, in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. The units are scheduled to begin their work in October.

“This project offers great support to the Lebanese University and helps it serve the students better,” said Asma Chamli, a researcher and professor at the university and coordinator of its International Relations Office.

Today, the Lebanese University, Lebanon’s only public university, has about 1,700 students from Syria, according to Chamli. “Because our university is a public one, many refugees want to study here because of the low tuition fees,” she said. “Still, the university and students are facing great difficulties.”

Problems that refugee students encounter, Chamli said, include differences in instructional language, style and methods from those they were accustomed to in Syria. And they’re arriving at a time when the university is struggling to provide basic supplies and serve Lebanese students first.

That underscores the importance of the Mediterranean Universities Union’s project, Chamli said. “It will help the university to provide guidance services to Syrian students, not just education, which is a very important role,” she said.

Currently, the organization is training staff members for the support units in the participating universities on best practices to reach and communicate with refugee students and provide all possible assistance to enable them to resume their university studies.

Each unit should also include a social worker to provide psychological support to students. (See a related article, “Refugee Youth Traumatized by War: Overwhelmed, Understudied.”)

Rand Hammoudi, the director of international relations at the University of Duhok, believes that dealing with refugee and displaced students is not easy. Most of them have witnessed tragic events, she said. “Universities can play a key role in supporting students at a psychological level rather than at the educational one alone,” she said.

Di Donato believes that the project “helps to keep university doors open to all.” The support units, he says, will serve not only university students but also those who want to complete their university studies, including local students who may need counseling or psychological support.

Regarding efforts to reach potential refugee students, di Donato said the project is carrying out awareness campaigns and visiting refugee camps to explain the services the units will provide. “We are in contact with international institutions working in refugee relief to help us inform the youth about the services of our units,” he said.

The project receives financial support from the European Union’s Erasmus+ Program and its Key Action 2 progam for capacity building in higher education. It is also working in coordination with international partners such as the Hopes project (Higher and Further Education Opportunities and Perspectives for Syrians), the British Council, and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Several European universities are also assisting the project.

“It is important to combine efforts, share experiences and avoid reinventing the wheel,” said di Donato. “The crisis is serious and the race against time must be reduced to minimize losses.”

Although it’s too early to judge the project’s success in reaching and communicating with potential students, di Donato hopes the project will have a clear impact that can be used later in Syria. “We are working hard to make the experiment a success,” he said. “Maybe it will be used later in Syria’s universities. That would be great.”


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