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Aid Agencies Are Building Alumni Networks to Help Syrian Graduates Find Jobs

Organizations providing scholarships for Syrian refugees to study outside their country have begun focusing on creating alumni networks. The move is motivated by two factors.

First, although support from such organizations has enabled thousands of young Syrians to study outside of their home country, few Syrian graduates have found work after completing their degrees.

An October 2020 needs assessment survey of nearly 500 former and current holders of scholarships funded by the European Union’s regional trust fund for Syria, which is known as the Madad fund and is the main source of scholarship funding for Syrian refugees, found that only 16 percent were employed.

The majority of those surveyed were living in Jordan and Lebanon. Graduates and those supporting them say there is a great desire for work. But it is very hard for Syrian refugees to get jobs, especially in Lebanon, where they are allowed to work in only three sectors: construction, agriculture, and cleaning. (See two related articles, “Syrian Refugees Are Often Steered Into Illegal Jobs” and “Little Hope of Jobs for Syrians in Lebanon and Jordan.”)

Alumni networks can provide training to help make Syrian graduates more employable or share news about employment opportunities and scholarships to continue their studies in countries neighboring Syria or further afield.

A Role for Syrian Graduates After the War

The second motivation for creating alumni networks is the urgent need to promote a community of educated Syrian expatriates who might return home when conditions allow. When peace returns, their efforts will be crucial to help rebuild the shattered country and perhaps nudge it in a more democratic direction.

“We’re starting too late,” says Grace Atkinson, executive director of Jusoor, a group made up of Syrian expatriates that has so far funded over 600 scholarships at leading universities around the world.

“It’s very difficult to build a network of people who have gone off in the world. We should have done this much earlier, to make them feel part of a movement to help give back and rebuild Syria.”

Jusoor, which means “bridges” in Arabic, is currently seeking to hire someone to help develop and manage an alumni network.

“It’s very difficult to build a network of people who have gone off in the world. We should have done this much earlier, to make them feel part of a movement to help give back and rebuild Syria.”

Grace Atkinson  
Executive director of Jusoor

For Louay Haji, an alumni network can’t come fast enough. A member of Syria’s Kurdish minority, he was raised in Damascus where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English before fleeing to the autonomous Kurdish region of neighboring Iraq after the start of the Syrian war.

There, he won a scholarship from the E.U.-funded HOPES project (Higher and Further Education Opportunities and Perspectives for Syrians) for a master’s degree program in English and applied linguistics in Sulaymaniyah. He is now a university English instructor and teacher trainer.

Help in Overcoming Bureaucracy

“I wish there had been an alumni network when I started my scholarship 2018,” Haji says. “The enrollment process was very tough, with lots of bureaucracy. If someone had helped me, it would have saved me a lot of work and agony.”

“Networking is very important,” he added, “especially if you are a refugee.”

Haji is a member of a committee that is establishing a new “unified regional alumni network” of former and current E.U.-funded scholarship holders in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, where the largest numbers of Syrian refugees have settled, as well as Egypt and Iraq.

European Union officials expect the network to open this spring. It will be open to all who have gotten scholarships from HOPES, from EDU-Syria—another project funded by Madad and run by the German Jordanian University—or from the international nonprofit organization SPARK. Scholarship holders from several smaller E.U.-funded programs may be included too.

Two HOPES scholarship recipients share a computer screen during a 2019 gathering (Photo: Madad-HOPES).
Two HOPES scholarship recipients share a computer screen during a 2019 gathering (Photo: Madad-HOPES).

Carsten Walbiner, director of HOPES-LEB, as the program is now called since its focus shifted toward Syrian refugees and vulnerable members of the host community in Lebanon, is leading the efforts to establish a alumni network. He says among its main activities will be providing training in job-seeking skills, like résumé preparation and creating a LinkedIn profile, as well as English language courses. Centralized information on further scholarship opportunities in Middle East host countries and elsewhere will also be provided.

Walbiner says last fall’s survey and several focus groups showed “a clear demand” among graduates for the network. In January, HOPES-LEB led a virtual conference of scholarship providers and European government agency representatives to advance the project.

More Interest in Studying Outside Lebanon

SPARK, which has provided scholarships and training for more than 10,000 mostly Syrian young people in the Middle East since 2015, set up its own alumni network for graduates in Lebanon last year.

“It was a really organic initiative, by and for the students,” says Nabil Halwani, a regional communications coordinator with SPARK.

He says in addition to providing training in jobs skills and job seeking, the group has tried to meet the large demand for information on scholarships for further study abroad—a demand that has increased sharply since last summer’s devastating explosion in Beirut’s harbor.

“I believe working remotely is the best solution for many Syrian refugee graduates.”

Nowar Rahmouni  
A Syrian refugee who earned an undergraduate degree in communications in Beirut

Nowar Rahmouni, a young Syrian who earned an undergraduate degree in communications in Beirut on a SPARK scholarship, has been leading the network. She says that, especially with Lebanon’s dire economic situation, one of the most helpful things for graduates is training in such skills as graphic design, translating, and writing marketing content—skills that could make them valuable to European companies or organizations interested in finding skilled and motivated employees or freelancers ready to work via the Internet. (See a related article, “Seize the Opportunities That Online Education Offers, Says a Lifelong Learner.”)

“I believe working remotely is the best solution” for many Syrian refugee graduates, Rahmouni says.

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Agatha Abi-Aad, an education officer with the DAFI refugee scholarship program of United Nations refugee agency in Beirut, agrees. “Having a university degree should be a source of strength and pride. But unfortunately, proper jobs cannot be found” by Syrian graduates in Lebanon.

With high unemployment in the region, and Lebanon demoralized and in the grips of a deep economic crisis, she says, alumni networks can play an important role in helping graduates find remote employment and opportunities for further study, as well as migration, to Europe and elsewhere.


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