Rima has spent most of the summer deskbound, working on her dissertation. The deadline is in September, and after that she has a four-month window before her U.K. visa expires, so when she isn’t studying, she’s trying to find a job.
“I can’t go back to Syria,” says the 29-year-old, who sends part of her study stipend home to support her elderly mother in Aleppo. That money stopped this month and now pressure is mounting on her and other recipients of the Chevening award to determine their next step.
“For Syrians it’s a totally different experience,” said Rima. (The name is a pseudonym used to protect her family back home.)
Chevening is the British government’s international scholarship program, offering students from over 160 countries the opportunity to earn a master’s degree in the U.K.
Rima is one of 32 scholars from Syria, out of a total 203 from across the Middle East and North Africa, who has studied in the United Kingdom as part of the program’s 2018/2019 cohort. Their one-year scholarships are now coming to an end, and for many, that means difficult choices now loom.
Awards are offered on the expectation that after completing their degrees, scholars will return to their home countries for two years and use the experience to make a positive impact. But for some Syrian students, and others from countries affected by war or continuing armed conflict, including South Sudan and Yemen, it’s too dangerous to go back.
Chevening scholars also cite a lack of employment opportunities back home—not just in Syria, but in other Arab countries too, including Jordan. Bassem Abu Nimeh completed his master’s at the University of Brighton in 2015 and then returned to Amman. “It was tough. Employers there didn’t appreciate the value of a degree in entrepreneurship,” said the 35-year-old, who is now back in the U.K. on a graduate program.
When Assistance Ends
Ali Alsayed, a Chevening scholar from Syria, was excited to win the award to study building information modeling and management at Oxford Brookes University. “It’s a life-changing opportunity, especially for someone living inside Syria,” the 25-year-old said. When he wasn’t studying, Alsayed explored. Chevening encourages awardees to get to know the country and engage with British culture. “I liked Cornwall best. I’ve lived my entire life in a coastal city and it reminded me a little of home.”
In recent months, though, he’s grown anxious. If he goes back to Syria in January, he’ll be forced to do military service, but finding jobs elsewhere is difficult. “I don’t have time to plan my future while I’m still working on my dissertation,” he said. “Everything should be clear by now, but it’s hard for Syrians in this situation,” he said.