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Syrian Students’ Dreams of Studying Abroad Hit New Roadblocks

Syrian students’ dreams of studying abroad increasingly crash against a growing list of harsh realities: restrictions on travel from their war-torn country, postponed visa interviews and language tests caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, an unstable political situation in neighboring Lebanon and now tougher U.S. sanctions on Syria. 

Raneem Alkhalel, a 23-year-old tourism graduate from Homs who has won a scholarship to finish her master’s degree in Hungary, knows these frustrations firsthand. Her visa interview at the Hungarian consulate in Lebanon has been postponed twice due to the coronavirus pandemic, and at times she has despaired that she may never leave Syria.

“The scholarship is in my pocket, yet I cannot reach it,” Alkhalel said over the phone as she broke into tears. 

A week later, the Syrian ministry of higher education called on the Hungarian scholarship winners to submit a copy of their passports and other documents for the scheduled visa interview appointment. 

A solution might be on the horizon, Alkhalel hopes.

“I don’t know any details about how this will be solved. The important thing is to get the visa and get over with it,” she said.

Coronavirus Closes a Vital Window

After 10 years of grinding civil war in Syria that left more than 90 percent of the population living under the poverty line and more than half unemployed, leaving Syria to study abroad has become an aspiration for tens of thousands of Syrians graduates. 

But a daunting array of roadblocks stands in their way. Most foreign embassies and cultural centers in Damascus have been closed since the start of the Syrian war in 2011, so students hoping to study abroad have had to travel to Beirut to take language tests and apply for visas. But now many testing centers and embassies in Beirut are also closed to visitors because of coronavirus precautions. 

“This is the worst situation in Syria since the beginning of the war and it’s becoming worse every single day,” said Majd Tabbakh, a cofounder of an online social media group with almost 100,000 members that provides mentoring to Syrian students on applying for scholarships.

“This is the worst situation in Syria since the beginning of the war and it’s becoming worse every single day.”

Majd Tabbakh  
a co-founder of an online social media group

“The only window out of Syria is Beirut, and this window is completely sealed at the moment,” Tabbakh said. 

He added that dozens of students he had mentored this year are currently stuck in Syria. Some have won scholarships in Europe but cannot take them due to closed embassies in Beirut. Others have received conditional university admissions that they will lose with no way to take international standardized language tests. 

Since 2015, Lebanon has tightened security measures for Syrians’ entry into Lebanon, imposing challenging conditions such as requiring them to have $2,000 in cash and a valid hotel reservation. (See a related article, “Ambitious Syrian Students Often Enter a Maze.”) But since mid-March, when the coronavirus lockdown went into effect, non-transit entry into Lebanon has become almost impossible.

Officially, the Lebanese authorities say Syrians can apply for an entry permit at the Lebanese embassy in Damascus or at the Lebanese General Security Directorate in Beirut, but more than a dozen students Al-Fanar Media spoke with said that the vague and complicated conditions made it impossible. 

U.S. sanctions block companies like Coursera and Duolingo from offering their services in Syria. An online petition seeks an exemption from the sanctions for educational services (Image: Stop Excluding Syrians campaign).
U.S. sanctions block companies like Coursera and Duolingo from offering their services in Syria. An online petition seeks an exemption from the sanctions for educational services (Image: Stop Excluding Syrians campaign).

Denied Entry at the Border

Reem Shammout, another winner of the same Hungarian scholarship, wanted to try for herself and not be deterred by other people’s failure stories. She went through all the required steps, obtaining a permit from the Lebanese embassy in Damascus, taking a Covid-19 test in Syria that cost her around $100, hiring a car to the Lebanese border checkpoint and carrying all required documents. But her entry was denied. 

The Lebanese authorities said the Hungarian embassy should contact them to get her a permission for that day. Shammout called the embassy, but it declined to help, saying it could not put pressure on the Lebanese authorities to facilitate her entry.

“It’s unfair. They are crashing people’s dreams,” Shammout said. 

The Hungarian embassy in Lebanon did not reply to a request for comment.

Maher Zaza, a 25-year-old German literature graduate from Damascus who is waiting for a visa interview in Lebanon as well, said some students were considering being smuggled illegally into Lebanon just to attend a visa interview. “If you’re caught, there is a huge fine and a life-long ban,” he said, adding that he personally wouldn’t take such a risk.

But Salam F. is considering this option. The 26-year-old mechanical engineer from Aleppo was planning to start her master’s studies in lasers and photonics in Germany this October. She had contacted around 40 universities in Germany, hoping that one would give her a conditional offer without an English-language test result, as her IELTS exam in Beirut was postponed five times due to the coronavirus lockdown. 

“I will wait one more month; if the border isn’t open, I will take that route,” she said. “I am more afraid of being stuck here in Syria than leaving illegally.”

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Disruptions in Language Testing

Standardized tests of English-language proficiency, such as TOEFL and IELTS, are required by almost all universities in the West. They are also a requirement for most scholarships. 

Most of these tests are no longer available in Syria because of the war. The only English-language test that is still offered in the country is the paper-based TOEFL, which many universities around the world don’t accept anymore as outdated. 

“Instead of helping those people who survived a war to develop and educate their youth to build a future, they are excluding them and treating them as terrorists.”

Reem Mahmood  
a 25-year-old Syrian student

The British Council confirmed that IELTS tests in Beirut have been postponed due to the country’s coronavirus lockdown and closure of borders. It added that the British Council in Lebanon provides candidates with border letters to ease their entry to Lebanon, and that it was looking into working with local partners in Syria.

The British Council is also offering an online “IELTS indicator” test that students could take at home. However, it is still unclear if the new test is widely accepted by universities and whether students living in Syria can take it.

“Coronavirus was a double-edged sword,” said Tabbakh, the Facebook group administrator. “From one side it made universities more flexible with their requirements; on other the hand, it closed borders and made travel more difficult.” 

On the plus side, more universities started accepting the Duolingo English test as a proof for English fluency, Tabbakh added. 

The Duolingo test can be done at home and costs around $50, compared to IELTS and TOEFL tests which cost around $200, plus the cost of travel to Lebanon. The online test was available in Syria until last June, when the toughest U.S. sanctions on Syria took effect and pushed American companies, including Duolingo, to suspend their services in the country. 

When the limits on access to the test went into effect, dozens of Syrian test-takers were affected, said Sam Dalsimer, a spokesman for Duolingo.

“As a company based in the U.S. committed to complying with all applicable laws, Duolingo is required to comply with U.S. sanctions, including those that restrict transactions or dealings with Syria,” Dalsimer said. He added that the company had requested authorization from the U.S. government to administer its English-language test to individuals in Syria and hoped it could make that happen soon.

‘Stop Excluding Syrians’

Reem Mahmood, a 25-year-old feminist activist, was one of the Syrian students whose test score was canceled due to the sanctions. York University in Canada, from which she had an offer, had exceptionally decided to accept the Duolingo test due to the coronavirus circumstances. 

“It was a great option,” she said. 

But after taking the test, she received an email from the U.S. company saying her test could not be processed due to the sanctions.

“They didn’t consider the effort and time I had put in to study for this test. They simply said, ‘Go away, we won’t give you a certificate,’” Mahmood said. 

After she was declined assistance from another Canadian organization for the same reason, she launched an online campaign, under the hashtag #Stop_Excluding_Syrians, calling on the United States to exempt educational services from the sanctions. 

“Education is the answer for a better future in Syria, yet it is the field affected most due to sanctions,” Mahmood wrote in her online petition, which had collected around 6,000 signatures as of early this week. She hopes that the petition will get enough voices to persuade the U.S. Congress to discuss the issue. 

“Instead of helping those people who survived a war to develop and educate their youth to build a future, they are excluding them and treating them as terrorists,” Mahmood said. “This is an anchoring of ignorance and backwardness in Syria.”


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