One Syrian-Palestinian’s Quest for a Master’s Degree

As a top student at the University of Damascus, I thought earning a scholarship to a foreign graduate school would be easy. But my idea to study overseas turned out to be just the beginning of a search that still hasn’t ended.

My experience shows that scholarship programs need to have a lot more flexibility when looking at the applications of students fleeing Syria.

In November 2013, I had completed one year of a master’s degree program in journalism at Damascus. But I had also just been accepted at six universities in the United Kingdom. My hope was to get out of Syria and transfer to a British school in September 2014. All I needed was a generous grant from a well-endowed foundation or a government agency.

I figured that wouldn’t be hard. My grade point average, after all, was the highest in the history of the university’s undergraduate media program. But I was naïve. At the time, I was volunteering at the Jusoor foundation, an American NGO of Syrian expatriates who assist Syrian students seeking higher education abroad.

I was working on the foundation’s social media. My first day on the job was a shock: Hundreds of Syrians sent inquiries asking for help via Facebook and Twitter. Whether hoping to enter undergraduate programs or doctoral studies, everybody was desperate to leave Syria. Those who had already managed to escape as refugees were asking for help, too.

I would send these desperate souls links to the Institute of International Education’s Fulbright scholarships and the Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis program in the United States.

The consortium has collaborated with Jusoor to place 500 Syrian students in American universities in the past three years.

Through my work with Jusoor, I learned how to apply to universities and how to compete for scholarships. The former knowledge I put to good use, securing offers at Durham, East Anglia, Goldsmith, City, Leeds and Lincoln Universities in Britain. But I foolishly only applied for the Said Foundation’s scholarship for students from Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria to attend British schools.

Said called me for an interview.

I remember going to the Internet café near my old dormitory and asking the café owner to turn down the sectarian songs he was always playing, so I could make a Skype call. I’d never seen anybody do that.

The scholarship officer and I talked for about 30 minutes. I discussed my ambitions, dreams and plans, why I’d chosen communications and why I needed assistance to attend a British university. I explained that my father has four other children, and his salary as a professor at Albaath University in Homs is barely enough to cover our basic needs.

I thought I convinced the committee what a special and hardworking student I was.

But I was wrong.

According to Ita Gallagher, who oversees the Said Foundation scholarships, the annual number of scholarships awarded to Syrian students has increased from eight in 2010 to 15 in 2015. The number of applicants has increased from 105 to 208 in the same period.

I was at my office at the university when I got the phone call from Mrs. Gallagher telling me that although I had impressed the committee, they had selected other students interested in “other fields.”

I cried and complained for days before admitting to myself that I would be stuck in Syria for another year, that I wouldn’t begin a new chapter of my life in Britain that September.

In reality I’ve learned since then that my situation is not unusual: Many Arab students are academically qualified for foreign study but are unable to afford it. Many countries and universities view foreign students as revenue, not as people who might contribute to their institutions.  And the number of available scholarships for Syrians and students from many other Arab nationalities is small compared to the need.

In Damascus, I was halfway through my master’s program in television editing. I didn’t choose the course of study, really. I enrolled because it came with a teaching assistant position, which I enjoyed. I asked about changing my degree program to international communications, but was told I would need to give up the job. The $100 a month that job paid helped me to afford the small room I shared with seven other women. I was stuck.

I tried to apply for other scholarships. My heritage as the daughter of Palestinian refugees living in Syria sometimes got in the way. My family has lived for 67 years in Syria, but all I have is a Syrian identification card that says I am a temporary refugee. An Australian scholarship program sent me a rejection letter because I am not a Palestinian living in Palestine. Technically, I was a refugee in Syria. A Dutch scholarship program accepted applications from Syrian citizens only. I’m not a citizen of anywhere.

In June 2014, the Goethe Institute invited me to a course on cultural journalism in Berlin. The seminar organizer called my arrival in Germany “a miracle,” since visas for Syrian residents were almost impossible to get.

During the seminar, I learned in Berlin that big political changes can happen suddenly. “Thirty years ago, nobody was imagining that the Berlin Wall would be demolished,” a pretty German tour guide told us during a visit to the Bundestag, Germany’s Parliament. “A young guy was shot trying to escape from East to West Berlin—only two months later the wall was wrecked.” That left me hopeful that the Syrian Civil War might also quickly end with little warning.

In the last days of the training, while everyone was shopping for gifts to take home, I was thinking about not getting on the flight back home. A Yemeni girl revealed to me that she would remain. I made up my mind. My Yemeni friend went to Munich to stay with a cousin. I took a bus to Hamburg where my aunt lives, with plans to apply for political asylum on humanitarian grounds.

At the Friedland border transit camp, where I was held after applying for asylum, I spent days filling out different scholarships forms. I had learned my lesson: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. I applied to Erasmus Mundus, Chevening, the Said Foundation and Asfari Foundation. Everyone rejected me. Apparently those scholarship bodies focus on students still in Syria. A friend whose husband got a scholarship to study in Scotland told me, “If they see the application comes from Europe, they don’t even read it.”

I’ve wanted to study in English. Now I’m in Germany. After almost two years of leaving behind my books and academic life in Damascus, I am not even sure if I could go to university again. I am working as a journalist now, but I’m thinking about studying in Germany, if I qualify.  I would have loved to start this September. But now I’m hoping for April.
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