AMMAN–The students sat, 20 to a room, sometimes fidgeting at makeshift desks, mostly staring pensively over questions on the thick test booklet. It was August and these 400 youngsters were in hot, dusty tents to take their final high school exam, the baccalaureate, which could grant them access to university.
These exams were held at the Za’atari refugee camp in the middle of the northern Jordanian desert and the students taking them were Syrian refugees. For them, scoring high on the test – the results of which they received Oct. 3 – was only a small, first step to a new beginning. But despite bureaucratic and financial obstacles to entering universities, the students say it was a chance they eagerly grabbed.
“I felt like as if I got my life back,” said Youssef Mhameed, 19.
Since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, life for millions of Syrians has been interrupted, especially for the one-third internally displaced and the two million forced to flee the country. For high school students, it has meant a roadblock between them and enrolling in universities.
This year, for the first time since the war broke out, regime opponents moved to organize new exams in what is now emerging as a parallel system. As a result, 10,000 students took the baccalaureate areas of Syria that are outside of regime control, 7,000 in Turkey, 1,400 in Jordan and 1,200 in Lebanon, according to officials from the opposition’s Office of the National Higher Commission for Learning and Higher Education.
“There are some students who were able to take the regime exams but there was a huge amount as well who could not because of shelling, bombing and blockades,” said Khalil Muflih, an education administrator in Syria for more than two decades before he fled and became a member of the commission, organizing the exams in Jordan. “We could not find any other way to embrace these students but to create exams.”
Like many Syrian teenagers, Mhameed was studying for the baccalaureate in Daraa, Syria, two years ago when he had to flee the country. He first moved to Kuwait, taking his books with him to prepare for the day when he could return to Syria to take the test. But when he heard the opposition would begin administering the test this year, he went to Jordan.
With only weeks to prepare for the test, he took it anyway.
“I have ambition,” he said. “I want to be educated, not ignorant.”
The problem though, says Adrienne Fricke, a human rights consultant, who co-authored a report this summer called Uncounted and Unacknowledged: Syria’s Refugee University Students and Academics in Jordan is that the needs of these students are overwhelming.
“We found lots of students in the camp eager to pursue their education, at any cost,” she said. “My impression was that the students we spoke to actually delayed leaving Syria in order to take their exams – education is a huge focus.”
“I know of one case where a disabled student in a wheel chair living in Egypt flew back to Aleppo to take the exams,” she added. “People are putting themselves at risk to try to complete their education as much as possible.”
The opposition’s education initiative began after the commission held a conference in late June in Gaziantep, Turkey, where it is headquartered, deciding on the content to be covered in the exams including a revised curriculum (See accompanying story: The Other Syrian War). Then they set out to publicize the new exams via social networks and in the camps as well as establish intensive courses to teach new subjects covered in the exams.
Besides the short timeframe, the main problem, says Anwar al-Masri, the commission member in charge at Za’atari camp, was a lack of teaching materials.
“The books were free at Zaatari but limited in amount,” he said. “There weren’t enough for all the students.”
The biggest issue for students, though, is what comes next.
Those students in regime-held areas can attend the universities still operating. But those outside Syria, in particular those in Jordan and Lebanon, are having trouble getting their transcripts much less getting them recognized by universities abroad. That will be an even bigger issue for those who have taken the opposition baccalaureate, coalition officials admit. The coalition does not have widespread international recognition or a clear system for representing all opposition factions, and the students themselves rarely have proper paperwork.
“Most of them fled without their transcripts – when you are a refugee, sometimes you flee even without your passport,” Fricke said. “Syrian embassies, not unsurprisingly, are not helping because they aren’t serving the refugee population.”
Still, opposition officials say three universities in Turkey are willing to take in Syrian students but the students complain that no one seems to know which ones those are.
“When we ask the teachers, they say ‘We do not know,’” said Muhammad Fayez Abied, 18, from Saraqib, Idlib who took the exams in August in a small village 30 minutes from his home because Saraqib’s schools have come under continuous regime shelling. Now he says, he must go abroad if he wants to continue his education because there are no opportunities in his province. But he doesn’t see that as likely.
“How could we go to these universities – we don’t even speak Turkish,” he added. “It is like they are lying to us, just giving us false hope in order to show they are doing something.” (The Turkish government has offered Turkish lessons to some students.)
Another issue is financial. Turkey has offered free tuition to Syrian students who qualify. But most Syrian students in Jordan and Lebanon will be cut off from universities because they won’t be able to pay tuition. Commission officials say there will be a small number of scholarships but only for those with the highest grades.
Still, it’s a start, say educators. “Most of the students had their education cut off since the uprising against the Syrian regime,” said al-Masri. “This year was their first opportunity to get back to studying again.”
Students say they hope without hope they can move on. “I was without hope that I could continue studying, and thought I lost a year of my life,” said Ashraf Aeash, 18, who took the exams in Irbid, Jordan, after halting his studies 14 months ago. “Now I hope, god willing, the exam will be recognized because otherwise, it will be a disaster.”
Mhameed, though, remained determined.
“I will not be desperate,” he said. “I will just start all over again.”