News & Reports

Syrian Youth: Still Seeking Education

This article is part of a package on the theme of scholarships for Syrian refugees. A separate article documents the fading donor interest in scholarships for refugees and a “fact file” lists the major scholarship programs for refugees.

If the interest of donors in providing scholarships for Syrians has waned, the appetite of Syrian students for higher education has not. Many students say they need more support—academic and financial—to overcome obstacles and get into higher education.

Four years ago, Rawan Agha and her family had to leave her hometown of Homs, a city heavily damaged by the fighting in Syria.

Rawan, then 15 years old, began secondary school in Tripoli, Lebanon. But she had difficulty making a linguistic shift from Arabic, the language of teaching she was accustomed to.

“When I became a high school student, I was told that I had to study in English if I wanted to complete my university education,” she said. “It was very difficult and I was not able to achieve good final results.”

Rawan’s poor test scores meant she wasn’t accepted for scholarships. “Getting high grades in the high school exit exams and mastering English is essential for admission to the scientific colleges here,” she said. “I feel I have lost my future.”

Rawan’s story is similar to that of thousands of Syrian refugees. Despite the scholarships that exist for young refugees, many are unlikely to continue their education, for multiple reasons.

“The number of available scholarships is still lower than the number of students in need,” said Hiba Hamadeh, the regional director in Lebanon of Spark, a Dutch nongovernmental organization. “The cost of a single scholarship is not small because education in Lebanon is not free, either in private or public universities.” The scholarships need to be accompanied by additional funds for students’ personal expenses, she said.

Last year, the Association of University Students in Lebanon, a community of Syrian students studying there, started a campaign called My Right to Higher Education aimed at bringing the voices of Syrian young people to relevant organizations. The students expressed a need for scholarships in specialized subjects such as medicine and engineering that could be important in rebuilding Syria. More than 4,000 students have applied this year for scholarships in Lebanon offered by international organizations, but only 150 students have been admitted, according to the campaign.

Muzna al-Zuhouri, a Syrian student and one of the campaigners, said the available scholarships do not cover many disciplines and sometimes have impossible conditions. If a student left Syria in their last year of university, for example, they might easily drift past the age of 24 before they are ready to apply for university in their host country. But 24 is the age limit for some scholarships. After that, she said, “they can only complete their studies at their own expense, which is not affordable for the majority.”

In 2013, Muzna left al-Qusayr, her hometown near Homs at the age of 20 to settle in Lebanon with her mother and sister about seven kilometers from the Syrian border. In 2016, she was finally able to obtain a scholarship from Spark, to study computer programming.

“The scholarship covers university tuition and a portion of the other expenses. It does not include more than four-year disciplines, so I was unable to resume my engineering studies [a five-year degree program] and joined another discipline,” she said.

In Jordan, young people in refugee camps are still seeking higher education. “In the first year of the Syrian crisis, there were no secondary-school students in al-Zaatari camp and the majority were women and children,” said Raed Sawalha, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s youth project manager there. “These children now have grown up and become young people of the age for starting university, and this is something donors must take into account.”

Sawalha agrees with students that many of them need more support and that the number of scholarships is inadequate to meet the need. Sawalha says Syrian students need more time to apply for scholarships, since many of the applications require a lot of official paperwork. Sawalha and others say that many scholarships just skim off the very best students with strong language skills, high test scores and good documentation, while other students are left to flounder.

“Most scholarships require high grades in the high school exit exam,” he said, “which seems very difficult for refugee students who live in harsh conditions in the camps where electricity is available only for limited hours during the day, or even for those living outside the camps. A student who lives in harsh conditions cannot be assessed in the same way as a student living in normal and reasonable living conditions.”

A bridging year between secondary school and university could help refugees with their language skills and make more of them eligible for a university education, Sawalha said.

The situation in Turkey is similar. A study published in July, titled The European Higher Education Area: The Impact of Past and Future Policies, found that about 51 percent of refugee youth in Turkey were rejected for the scholarships they applied for.

“Getting a scholarship is the dream of all young people to change their lives,” said Mohammed Sallou, a young Syrian from Raqqa who got a scholarship from Spark and is currently residing in Kahramanmaraş, Turkey. The scholarship and a small stipend that came with it were a turning point in his life, he said. Before, he said, “I was working in an aluminum workshop under extreme conditions to secure my daily life.”

Syrian refugees study Turkish in a language center in Istanbul (Photo: Valeriy Melnikov, AP).

In Turkey, students need to have a refugee identification card from the Turkish government to get a scholarship, but the government stopped issuing those cards two years ago.

Despite talk about the voluntary return of some refugees to Syria, the reality is that young people are still leaving the country.

“Most of them are males who want to escape compulsory military service and are looking for an opportunity to work,” said al-Zuhouri. “Jobs do not seem to be possible here,” she said. “But this does not mean giving up the right to education, which is our only way to build our future life, whether we are to go back to Syria or go on to another country.”


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