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Donor Interest Fades in Scholarships for Refugees

This article is one of a three-part package about scholarships for Syrian refugees. Another article documents the continuing desire of Syrian youth to gain access to higher education and the obstacles they face. A “fact file” lists the major scholarship programs for refugees.

Donor interest in Syrian youth who want higher education is weakening, and the supply of scholarships is lagging behind demand.

Those international organizations still trying to improve educational opportunities for Syrian youth appear to be shifting to vocational programs tailored to the sometimes harsh political and economic realities of host countries. Efforts are also increasing to convince governments that hosting refugees can be an economic advantage. (See a related article, “Syrian Refugees Are Often Steered Into Illegal Jobs.”)

The need for economic help in educating refugee and displaced youth is not letting up. Refugee agencies fear an additional 700,000 Syrians could be displaced as fighting continues, according to a September report from the Norwegian Refugee Council. The Syrian conflict has already displaced over 13 million people, more than five million of whom have fled to neighboring countries, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR.

After the start of the conflict, donor funding for higher education was slow to arrive. Between 2014 and 2016, some higher-education funding for Syrians living in the countries neighboring Syria began to trickle in. In some instances, that trickle expanded to a strong flow.

UNHCR’s Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative (DAFI), for example, which is funded by the German government, has exponentially increased scholarships for Syrians. In 2017, UNHCR was helping 2,528 Syrians in the Middle East and North Africa region to finish a bachelor’s degree in the countries where they lived, a spokesperson said. That made Syrians 38 percent of all DAFI recipients. (See a related article, “First Refugee Scholarship Program Experiences Rapid Growth.”)

Meanwhile, Spark, a Dutch nonprofit organization that promotes higher education and entrepreneurship in conflict-affected countries, has also increased its efforts for Syrians. As of 2018, the organization’s Higher Education for Syrians program has made available a total of 8,398 scholarships for Syrians to pursue a bachelor’s degree or vocational training across the Arab region. Spark expects to award a total of 10,000 scholarships to Syrians by 2020, organization representatives said.

These larger programs may be expanding, but scholarship funding on the whole appears to be stagnating, while the number of applicants has sharply increased, Yannick Du Pont, the director of Spark, said in an interview. Some 18,000 refugees applied for 4,000 Spark scholarships in 2016; almost 44,000 applied for just over 8,000 scholarships in 2018. The number of applicants for each open slot increased from 4.5 to 1 to 5.5 to 1.

“We saw a huge surge [in scholarships] after the migrant waves into Europe,” said Du Pont. “I don’t see the same kind of drive now.”

Inside Syria, many more students are struggling to access higher education. Although public universities do not charge tuition, students need to be able to afford transportation, books, official lecture notes and daily living costs.

For students displaced from their homes in the country’s civil war, the chances of attending university are close to zero.

A university student volunteering in a place where internally displaced persons have settled near Homs said that out of 100 young people of university age in that location, only one was able to attend university. “There are no scholarships. None,” she said.

In the past, many international donors diverted funds from other global programs to the Syrian crisis temporarily. New humanitarian crises, such as the exodus of the Rohingya from Myanmar, have also drawn away donor support. “They can’t allocate the same amount of money to Syria now with all of the requests from Africa and elsewhere,” said Carsten Walbiner, director of the scholarship program HOPES, which is administered through the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to fund higher education at all degree levels for Syrians. “Many haven’t gotten any more funding and had to allocate money to Syria from other budgets. But now it’s a different story.”

Funding for HOPES is scheduled to stop at the end of 2019. Since 2016, the program has provided 653 scholarships for bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well as vocational training, to Syrians across the Arab region.

Edu-Syria, a scholarship program offered through the German Jordanian University, has ended after having awarded 1,426 scholarships for bachelor’s and master’s degrees and vocational training since 2015 to both Syrians and Jordanians, said project manager assistant Fayed Siyaj.

That mostly has to do with donors’ uncertainty about the outcome of the Syrian crisis, he said.

“Because our project is mainly for Syrian refugees, the political situation is saying that Syrian refugees are going back to their country,” he said. “Most donors would rather wait and give funding to Syrian people in their country.” Humanitarian agencies stress that “safe return” is not yet a reality.

A Syrian student in Lebanon (Photo: Natheer Halawani).

The United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, has halted funding for its Bridging Learning Gaps for Youth program this year, said Anasse Bouhlal, a program specialist in UNESCO’s regional bureau in Lebanon.

The program awarded over 1,018 scholarships to Syrian, Jordanian and Lebanese students to pursue a bachelor’s degree or vocational training between 2016 and 2017, but it ended at the beginning of 2018 and won’t be renewed. “The funds are the issue,” said Bouhlal.

Some donors have run against the prevailing trend: The Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, based in the United Arab Emirates, has pledged $27 million over the next three years to refugee education, with some of that money going to students in secondary schools and higher education.

In Turkey, where the vast majority of Syrian refugees have settled, the tumultuous political situation, as well as strict barriers to entry and high tuition, have created a higher-education system that is increasingly difficult for Syrian refugees to navigate, according to a 2017 study conducted by the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

In Lebanon, where the economy has struggled with low growth rates, the government has become stricter in blocking nongovernmental organizations from funding programs exclusively for refugees, said Gemma Bennink, the regional program manager for Spark’s Higher Education for Syrians program.

Lebanese government officials, Bennink said, say “that any NGO that works in Lebanon needs to very clearly show what the benefits are for Lebanese society and its population.” The political situation is similar in Jordan, where scholarship programs for refugees typically have to also allocate money for disadvantaged Jordanians.

Syrian youth in Lebanon have difficulty getting access to quality primary and secondary education. Many Syrian youth never make it to higher education and those Syrian refugees who do reach university are often woefully unprepared.

As a result of that and many other barriers, such as young people’s need to earn money for their families, many scholarship programs in the country have high drop-out rates.

In 2013, over 50 percent of the hundreds of Syrians who received scholarships for bachelor’s degrees through the Lebanese Association for Scientific Research’s (LASeR) Scholarships for Syrian’s program dropped out, said Mustapha Jazar, the organization’s president. (See a related article, “A Novel Approach to Getting Syrian Students Into Universities.”)

LASeR quickly reinvented its program by using stricter vetting procedures and offering scholarships only in fields with market relevance. That decreased the drop-out rate to 2 percent in later intakes, said Jazar.

But LASeR has also scaled down its operation. Last year, the organization took on only 65 students, compared to 500 in 2016. For the current academic year, the organization will award about 40 scholarships.

“We decreased like that because we felt in 2016 that the money was going away,” he said. “The donors no longer want to invest in the Syrian crisis.”

A Syrian student at Jinan University, in Lebanon (Photo: Natheer Halawani).

Scholarship providers are now tailoring their offerings in an effort to make more impact in a changing higher-education and economic landscape for Syrian refugees. “We should really concentrate on developing vocational training, because that sector needs more development in these countries than the normal university business,” suggested HOPES program director Walbiner. “A more targeted approach will help these [vocational] institutions improve.”

Others suggest bolstering initiatives that guide Syrians through the complex maze of studying, living and working in a country that is not their own. Unimed’s Rescue: Refugees Education Support in MENA Countries, for example, helps universities in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq to create support centers  for Syrian students on their campuses.

“If you want to be more effective as a scholarship provider, you need to discuss with each university how not only refugees will benefit, but how the local community will benefit as well,” said Marco di Donato, a researcher at Unimed. “It’s not about having a national strategy, but a local strategy.”

Headlines may have drawn donors’ attention to new causes, but the fallout from the conflict in Syria continues. “The war is not over, and individuals aren’t likely to return any time soon because of the nature of the conflict and the ethnic divide,” said Yannick Dupont, of Spark. “That means that a lot of these young people will probably be in between these host communities, and these host communities aren’t very favorable toward integrating them [Syrian refugees] into the labor market.”

“I think that’s where we need to put much more effort now,” he added. “We need to work with these governments.”


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