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For Syrian Students in the U.K., Tough Decisions Loom

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.

Hanan Keswani is studying social development at The University of Sussex on a Chevening Award. She likes the diversity of British society (Photo: Olivia Cuthbert).
Hanan Keswani is studying social development at The University of Sussex on a Chevening Award. She likes the diversity of British society (Photo: Olivia Cuthbert).

The Chevening scholarship’s terms and conditions state that students who do not remain a resident in their home country for two years after completing their course will be treated as in breach of their scholarship agreement and may be asked to pay back the cost of their award. The terms also state that in “exceptional circumstances,” scholars may apply to return to a third country for the two-year period “if returning to the home country is impossible due to conflict in that country.”

A spokesperson for the British Foreign Office confirmed that the award’s recipients are expected to “use their Chevening experience to make a positive impact in their country and community.” The spokesperson noted that welfare support is available to scholars while they’re studying in the United Kingdom, but added: “We are not able to provide assistance for scholars seeking to apply for visas or asylum in the U.K. after their award.”

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Applying Isn’t Easy

The Chevening application process is extremely competitive. Candidates often invest a lot of time and money in the application process.

“Applying for Chevening is all about deadlines, so you have to be careful,” said Mervat Alhaffar, a Syrian student who is studying public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The British Embassy in Damascus has been closed since 2012, so Syrian applicants travel to Lebanon for the interviews and English-language proficiency exams. For some, crossing the border is a major hurdle. (See a related article, “Ambitious Syrian Students Often Enter a Maze.”)

Rima spent around $600 applying for her Chevening scholarship. She hopes to become a professor and help improve teaching methods at Syrian universities, but with one brother detained by the regime and the other in Turkey, it falls to her to provide for her family. “I saved on transport costs by walking to work so I could afford 3G [“third generation” wireless internet] for the online English courses. Even then I had to get up at 4 a.m. when no one is using the internet.”

Looking back on her time in the United Kingdom, she said the experience has “changed the way I perceive the world.” But it has also reinforced the distance she sees between Syrians and other young people. Away from home, stifled emotions come to the surface as the trauma of war takes its toll. “For the first time you are on your own and can express all the feelings. When you are with your family, everyone is trying to be strong for each other.”

At the Chevening farewell event last month, Rima watched students from other countries present films of their experiences. “I saw how much fun they all had over the last year, but Syrians spent this time thinking about tough decisions and people back home,” she said. “It really reminded me that as a Syrian you can’t be a normal person anymore.”

Life in the U.K.

At first Omama Zankawan, 28, thought she wanted to return to Homs, in western Syria, after finishing her course, but then she made a brief trip back in June. Most of her friends were out of work with very few prospects. “I realized that there is really nothing to go back to,” she said.

Arriving in London for the first time, she felt overwhelmed. “It took me a while just to realize I was safe; not to be afraid that any minute you could be bombed.” She was excited by the novelty of living alone. “I must have been very spoilt—I had never cooked or done laundry before!” A pleasant surprise was the number of women wearing the hijab, which stopped her feeling out of place in a strange city.

Gaith Dkmak said the Chevening experience has been lifechanging, but going back to Syria is not an option yet (Photo: Olivia Cuthbert).
Gaith Dkmak said the Chevening experience has been lifechanging, but going back to Syria is not an option yet (Photo: Olivia Cuthbert).

Many of the Syrian students commented on the freedom they found in Britain’s multicultural society. Gaith Dkmak, 32, had lived in Turkey for five years, where he sometimes said he was half-Lebanese to avoid negative stereotypes. “In London I could honestly and proudly say I’m Syrian because it’s so diverse. I’m not a refugee here, I’m a scholar. Chevening has given me the opportunity to feel myself again and not be ashamed of who I am.”

Like others, though, Dkmak is worried about his next steps and feels that Chevening could offer more support in navigating the legal requirements for work in the U.K. He is keen to get back to Turkey and continue his work in integration of refugee communities but wants to apply his learning first. “If you want to go back and be a key player, you need experience in a developed country,” he said. “We came here not just to take from the U.K., but to give as well.”

Hanan Keswani, 28, who did a master’s in social development at the University of Sussex, is also eager to return but said she’d prefer to build some practical experience first. “I really, really want to get back to benefit my country after war. We’re all excited but kind of worried about what the next step will be. Is it safe to go back or not? Are we going to have good opportunities to work, to invest these qualifications in Syria?”

Return isn’t an option for Rima, who has decided to apply for asylum in the U.K. It was a “tough decision,” she said, but her political views prevent her from returning home. As an asylum applicant, she’s unable to travel and see her family for at least four months, maybe up to a year. But she’s looking to the future and hoping that one day she’ll be able to realize her long-term dream of transforming higher education in Syria.


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