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Syrian Students Find Hope Amid New Challenges in Portugal

Genwa was 17 when she arrived in Lisbon from Syria, but she soon got used to people saying how young she was to have left home.

“Yes, it was hard, I will not downplay how difficult it was for me to come here alone, away from my family to a different continent. But is it harder than life in Syria? … [Harder] than going to your art class and seeing a horror movie unfold in front of you because that neighborhood has been bombed five minutes ago?”

Now 20, Genwa is studying international relations and political science at a university in Portugal, after spending two years in the country catching up on high school.

Genwa is among hundreds of Syrian students to win a place at a university in Portugal through the Global Platform for Syrian Students, an emergency scholarship program launched by former Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio in 2014. Since then, more than 100 Syrian students have completed their studies in Portugal, graduating with bachelor’s, master’s or Ph.D. degrees with support from the platform, which has awarded more than 550 annual scholarships to date. (See a related article, “Group Seeks ‘Quantum Leap’ in Aid for Refugee Students.”)

According to Sampaio, it’s “one of the rare things that can be done from day one in a crisis—to protect the human capital, provide education to youth and prepare the next generation of leaders who ultimately have to rebuild war-torn countries.”

“One of the rare things that can be done from day one in a crisis [is] to protect the human capital, provide education to youth and prepare the next generation of leaders who ultimately have to rebuild war-torn countries.”

Jorge Sampaio  
Former president of Portugal and founder of the Global Platform for Syrian Students

Sampaio, along with Genwa and other students, spoke last Thursday during an online discussion titled “Higher Education in Crisis Settings Matters—Listening to Syrian Voices and Other Testimonials.” The discussion was a side event ahead of the fifth Brussels Conference on “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region,” set for March 29 and 30.

Gratitude Tinged With Guilt

Like other students who spoke at Thursday’s event, Genwa is acutely aware of the opportunities she gained by studying abroad. “I would even feel guilty sometimes because I got lucky that I received the scholarship and there are millions of other Syrian students who are still waiting for the same opportunities and were even more unfortunate than me because they lost houses or limbs or parents.”

The shortfall in places on higher education scholarships and training programs for countless Syrian students was a key theme at Thursday’s event.

Pedro Costa Pereira, a diplomat speaking on behalf of the Permanent Representation of Portugal to the European Union, warned of a global failure to meet the needs of refugee students. Despite history demonstrating time and again that learning is a driver for change and a vital tool for rebuilding nations ripped apart by war, “the theme of higher education in crisis settings is unfortunately often overlooked or perhaps not always seen as a priority in emergency situations,” he said.

While 2018 showed some improvement, with a rise in refugee enrollment in higher education from 1 percent to 3 percent—representing a total of 87,833 refugee students worldwide—the figure still falls far short of the global average of 37 percent.

Syrian Students Portugal 2
Syrian students participate in a summer school organized by the Global Platform for Syrian Students (Photo: Global Platform for Syrian Students).

One of the problems, according to Helena Barroco, secretary general at the Global Platform for Syrian Students, is that international organizations, including the European Union, fail to include higher education within the humanitarian agenda, while the small amount of funding that has been set aside is unpredictable and unsustainable. “Higher education is still seen in emergency settings as a luxury, so we are struggling to change the mind-set,” she said.

Wider Benefits of Scholarship Programs

Wajdy, another student who spoke on Thursday, left the city of Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast to pursue a master’s degree in marketing and communication on scholarship in Portugal. For him, the experience has nurtured both personal and academic growth. “I have not only developed my research capability but expanded my view of the world,” the 33-year-old said. “I have accomplished much of what I never thought possible.”

The benefits reverberate beyond the select group of individuals who manage to secure a scholarship.

Jebraiel, a 27-year-old graduate medical doctor from Homs, is completing his master’s degree research on post-traumatic stress disorder in children and adults in Syria. (See a related article, “The Frustrating Lives of Syria’s Future Leaders.”)

“After the conflict, the health-care system in Syria generally, and mental health services especially, have been collapsing,” he said, emphasizing the desperate need for qualified medical professionals in the country. “Education is the master key to build skilled leaders and push forward our society and economy—and to rebuild our country.”

Many of the Syrian students in Portugal hope to take their skills back to Syria and support the reconstruction of the country they saw crushed during a decade of war.

Arwa, who hails from Homs, where historic streets were reduced to rubble by the Assad government forces’ bombardments on a city once known as the “capital of the revolution,” studied civil engineering in Lisbon and has now been working at a Portuguese construction firm for three years. “My life has changed, now I can say that I’m completely independent. … Maybe in the future I can go back home and share my knowledge to participate in rebuilding all the destroyed cities.”

Challenges Even for the Lucky Ones

Many students, however, can only dream of accessing a place at a university overseas, and opportunities in Syria are limited. (See a related article, “In Syria, the Complicated Web that Sanctions Weave.”)

“Now more than ever, education is important, as Syrians will be the ones to rebuild their country, but they lack the materials to do that.”

A Syrian pharmacist and human rights advocate who is now studying in London.

“Now more than ever, education is important, as Syrians will be the ones to rebuild their country, but they lack the materials to do that,” said George, a Syrian pharmacist, peacebuilder and human rights advocate who is now studying at King’s College London.

Most, he said, could only dream of finding the funds to travel to Lebanon for the language exams and visa applications required by study-abroad programs.

For those who have gained places, the transition has not been without challenges. All of the students described difficulties adapting to the demands of a new education system with classes in a foreign language while adjusting to a different country and culture.

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William, who arrived in the Portuguese city of Porto from Damascus in 2014, used to catch up during evening sessions with his tutors after class, sometimes as late as 11 p.m. “Because of the extra effort I had to put in for my studies, I didn’t build many connections, and for me it is important to have this kind of balance between studies and other activities in life, which wasn’t the case that first year, but in the second it got better.”

Looking back, many of the students say that overcoming these challenges helped them develop, in their chosen career paths and as people. “Not only have I survived but I got the chance to be happy … to raise my voice, to state my opinion, to walk on the streets,” said Salma, 22. “I have hope and I’m able to dream more.”

She added, “I was lucky to get this opportunity, and there are many other people who are still waiting for an opportunity.”


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