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World Refugee Day Reminds Us, There’s Still a Long Way to Go

/ 21 Sep 2021

World Refugee Day Reminds Us, There’s Still a Long Way to Go

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

One fateful day about seven years ago, I was prevented from boarding a flight to Amman from Beirut’s Rafic Hariri Airport due to a sudden decision denying entry of Syrian refugees into Jordan. I tried to convince an airline staff member that I was not a refugee. I told him I hold an official ordinary Syrian passport, and I had been living in the Kingdom for more than two years. I explained that I was even born in Amman. None of that was enough to convince him to allow me to board the plane. I collected my little suitcase and left the airport, wondering where to go and what to do.

That sudden decision changed my life. For several weeks, I lived out of that small suitcase, moving from one friend’s house to another until a Canadian academic hosted me in his house on the campus of the American University of Beirut, where he was working at the time.

I was unable to comprehend that massive change or think of a solution to my strange new situation. My professional future seemed at stake as well. I was not sure whether I could continue my work or return to Syria. Later, with the help of my former editor and academic friends, I was able to obtain approval to re-enter Jordan. Despite the simplicity of this personal experience, it was enough to introduce me to the extent of obstacles people could face for just holding a specific document or nationality.

Inspiring Encounters With Students

By the end of 2014, I was invited to attend an international conference in Brussels discussing ways to provide higher-education opportunities during crises in conjunction with the escalation of the war in Syria, which was described by the United Nations as “the worst man-made disaster since World War II.” (See a related article, “In Brussels, an Emergency Call for Higher Education.”)

There was almost no Arab representation in the conference, in terms of attendance or the discussed programs and initiatives. However, I had the opportunity to meet for the first time some of the Syrian refugee students who were awarded scholarships to continue their studies in Europe.

That sudden decision changed my life. For several weeks, I lived out of that small suitcase, moving from one friend’s house to another until a Canadian academic hosted me in his house on the campus of the American University of Beirut, where he was working at the time.

Meeting those students was inspiring, given the hope and earnest desire they showed to finish their studies and return to rebuild their country later on. They were passionate about developing their skills, expanding their knowledge, and also defending the right of thousands of other students to complete their studies, which they were denied due to the war.

Later on, I kept meeting many such students, especially with the special attention Al-Fanar Media has given to covering everything related to refugee education issues since 2015, from exclusive reports and features, field visits to refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan, to conferences and workshops organized in cooperation with international institutions to discuss ways to increase support and scholarships for refugee students.

Every time I met Syrian students, I experienced renewed inspiration and widened disappointment. (See a related article, “Meeting Syrian Students: A Mixture of Pride and Sadness.”)

Despite the yearly increase in the number of scholarships available to them, it is still impossible to include all of them. (See a related article, “A Statistical Portrait of Syrian Students’ Frustration.”) Not to mention the endless obstacles they face on their way to campus, like security approvals, travel visas, and missing official documents. (See a related article, “The Lack of Academic Documents Is Ending Young Peoples’ Dreams.”)

A Day for Reflection

I recall all these incidents today as the world marks World Refugee Day in light of a clear decline in interest in refugee issues, starting with media outlets, which no longer prioritize covering refugees’ stories, to the donors that reduced their budget and closed many of their refugee-oriented programs. (See a related article, “Donor Interest Fades in Scholarships for Refugees.”)

The Covid-19 pandemic has also contributed to turning attention away from the conditions of refugees, who are suffering from both their situation and the pandemic today. The lockdown imposed by the pandemic and the shift towards e-learning made their access to education more difficult and prompted many of them to drop out and look for any job opportunity to support themselves and their families. (See two related articles, “A Conversation About the Situation of Syrian Refugee Girls in Lebanon” and “As Refugees’ Plight Worsens, Schools Becomes a Luxury.”)

Celebrating a special day usually requires remembering achievements, but I believe there is still a long way to go, and today is a more appropriate opportunity to remind the world of refugees’ daily increasing needs.

The number of Syrian refugees may have decreased slightly, not because of the improvement in conditions in Syria, but rather because of the severe restrictions imposed by all countries on their movement and reception. This decline does not mean a decrease in their need for education.

The number of Syrian refugees may have decreased slightly, not because of the improvement in conditions in Syria, but rather because of the severe restrictions imposed by all countries on their movement and reception. This decline does not mean a decrease in their need for education. On the contrary, children who left their country at school-age are now young people standing on the brink of joining universities.

Besides the Syrians, there are today hundreds of young Lebanese, Yemenis, Palestinians and Iraqis whose countries are suffering from violence and dire political and economic crises. All of them, without exception, deserve support to achieve their right to education to build a better future for themselves and their country. (See a related article, “Foreign Support Helps Lebanese Students Complete Degrees Amid Crises.”)

In addition to the need to increase scholarships offered to refugee students, there must be a change in host countries’ policies to allow graduates to work officially and legally. It makes no sense to spend millions of dollars on scholarships that end up pushing these students to the ranks of the unemployed—or to the sea again in search of a decent life.

A Bittersweet Meeting

In the spring of 2018, I paid my last visit to an informal refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. I wandered into an unofficial school set up from donations to educate children who often drop out to work on farms with their mothers at rock-bottom wages. I asked a 9-year-old child about his favorite school subject. He said “German.” “Do you learn German here?” I asked in amazement. “No,” he replied in absolute confidence, “but I will once I travel to Germany with my family. We are waiting for the decision to reunite us with my father.”

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His answer shocked me, and made me feel both happy and sad. I rejoiced that he hoped to travel and learn despite his young age, yet I felt sad that he thought his education and happiness would be far from here. However, what is “here” to feel happy about? A squatter camp, a non-official school, and hard work with improper pay!

On World Refugee Day, I hope that that little boy has arrived in Germany and did learn German, which he believes to be the most beloved and closest subject to his little heart that deserves joy, just like millions of other similar children.

Rasha Faek is the editor of Al-Fanar Media. You can follow her @RashaFaek.




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Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام