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Refugee Education: Often-Discussed Problems Find Few Quick Solutions

AMMAN—Abdullah al-Ghanim, a 21-year-old Syrian citizen, has managed this year to attain his personal goal of attending university to study media and mass communication. But to pay his tuition of about $2,000 a semester, he has to work 12 hours a day as a waiter in a coffee shop. Between his job and time in classes, al-Ghanim cannot sleep more than four hours a day.

“I dreamed of getting a scholarship, but all my applications were rejected without explanation,” he said. “I know that many Syrian students have won scholarships, but there are many like me who have not been able to get one. I hope there will be an increase in the number of scholarships to meet the mounting number of students in need. I also hope programs would clarify the reasons for rejection to ensure transparent selection.”

Al-Ghanim’s comments came as part of his participation this month in a panel at a conference in Jordan titled “Higher Education and the Syrian Crisis, What’s Next?” The conference was part of a project called Higher and Further Education Opportunities and Perspectives for Syrians, funded by the European Union.

The project, which is known as HOPES, seeks to provide higher-education opportunities for Syrian refugees and other young people in communities affected by the influx of refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The HOPES project has German, French, Dutch and British partners and is supported by the European Union’s Madad Fund. The program offers full scholarships to students to pursue undergraduate and master’s degrees, along with university guidance services and English courses. It also supports innovative education-focused initiatives and short-term learning projects.

“I hope there will be an increase in the number of scholarships to meet the mounting number of students in need.”

-Abdullah al-Ghanim  
A Syrian student in Jordan who works 12 hours a day to pay his tuition

The panel session at which al-Ghanim spoke also included a number of Syrian and Jordanian students with scholarships who spoke about the challenges they face.

“Getting access to the labor market is very difficult, and decent job opportunities that are commensurate with our university studies are almost non-existent,” said Mohammed Ezzeddine, a student at the University of Petra, in Jordan, who recently earned a master’s degree in business administration.

Ezzeddine obtained his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, but was unable to find work or even to get additional training because of the kingdom’s labor laws that restrict many professions such as engineering to citizens only. (See a related article, “Syrian Refugees Are Often Steered into Illegal Jobs.”) For this reason, he decided to complete his higher education in another subject in an effort to find employment. But his new master’s degree is not helping him.

“I would not have completed my higher education without getting a scholarship,” he said. “I’m very grateful to the staff, but I’m still without work. This is just frustrating.”

Refugee employment was the focus of another panel within the two-day conference. Attendees at the conference discussed efforts at improving social cohesion and integration; ways of alleviating tensions within host communities; the language needs of refugee students in higher education; blended learning and online study solutions; and the status of refugee academics. All subjects had been discussed before in regional and international meetings.

Donor Interest Fades

Although many young Syrians continue to be interested in higher education, donor interest in supporting them is declining, with some programs discontinuing and other programs coming to a standstill. (See a related article, “Donor Interest Fades in Scholarships for Refugees.”)

“We need more funding to continue our programs, increase the number of scholarships and improve their conditions to accommodate the growing numbers of students,” said Maren Kroeger, the senior officer for higher education at UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. “International institutions are now more aware of the reality of refugees’ education and are more experienced,” she added, “We can work better and more with more cost-efficiency.”

Nasser Yassin, the director of research at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, was outspoken in criticizing the current policy responses to the Syrian crisis. “There is a problem with the response system. It is short and time-limited, while the Syrian crisis is long and still going on and the possibility of the refugees going back home soon is not realistic,” he said. He said the current responses can be compared to just keeping refugees on the surface of the water, largely safe from drowning, but never pulling them out of the water. “The response system needs to be reviewed and developed in line with the reality of long crises.”

The conference concluded with a series of recommendations concerning the need for increased collaboration among international institutions interested in refugee education. “We need more cooperation and less competition to benefit the students and to continue our work efficiently,” said Carsten Walbiner, the director of HOPES.

Al-Ghanim concluded his speech by expressing how much pressure he was under simply to remain a student. “Between work and study, I do not have time to sleep or practice my favorite sport,” he said, “I hope to have time to play football, the game I love and have not practiced for a long time.”


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