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Scholarship Options for Syrian Refugees Expand

This story is part of a package that includes an infographic comparing applications to scholarships available, and a fact sheet about major scholarship programs for Syrians.

The number of higher-education scholarships available for Syrian students has increased sharply over the past year or so, as international organizations, nonprofit groups, and some governments have stepped up efforts to help displaced and refugee students enter university programs this fall.

The spike in funding was spurred by the flood into Europe last year of well over a million refugees and migrants—led by the Syrians. As the war in Syria drags on into its fifth year, policy makers and humanitarians have become increasingly concerned about the reality that without access to higher education, the future of many young Syrians is on ice, and few will have the advanced skills needed to help rebuild their country when war finally ends.

There are still far more Syrian refugees who want to study than opportunities for them to do so. The several thousand new scholarships made available in the last year “are simply not enough,” says Yannick Du Pont, director of SPARK, a Dutch organization that promotes higher education and entrepreneurship in conflict-affected areas.

SPARK’s “Higher Education for Syrians” program, which started up in October 2015,  appears to be the largest such effort. This fall, it helped 4,000 young Syrians enroll in universities and technical colleges in the countries surrounding Syria: Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

SPARK’s scholarships also went to students at six technical colleges in rebel-held territory in northern Syria. The group plans to expand the total number of scholarships to 10,000 over the next four years.

SPARK received 4½ applications for every scholarship it offered, or a total of 18,000. Other scholarship programs, especially for study at universities in Western countries, report one hundred applications for each scholarship. On the other hand, some scholarships in places like the United Kingdom are going begging, due to restrictive government policies that prevent many Syrian students from entering the country and other prospective Syrian students from relocating inside the country.

SPARK has negotiated steep reductions in tuition fees with local colleges and universities. It estimates it is spending on average $10,000 to $12,000 per student for a two- to four-year study program, including a $200 monthly living stipend.  While SPARK’s approach stretches funds far, it is leading to quiet complaints from its some of the group’s institutional partners that they are left covering costs for the students—such as for English lessons, costs for which they don’t always have the funds.

SPARK feels it is better to provide educational opportunities for Syrians in the Middle East, rather than at Western institutions. For one thing, Du Pont says, it can cost 10 to 25 times more to educate a refugee in the Netherlands or the United States. But beyond that, he says, enabling students to study in a neighboring country keeps them closer to their extended families and their own culture and increases the chance that they will return home and put their education to use there when the fighting ends.

That way of thinking is gaining ground. “There has been a shift toward providing scholarships in the region, rather than in the West,” says Carsten Walbiner. He directs HOPES, a European-Union-funded program, started in April that currently provides 100 scholarships in the region, mostly for master’s-degree-level studies. The program plans to increase the number to 500. HOPES also provides English-language courses and academic counseling.

But not all groups feel the same. Jusoor (Arabic for “bridges”) is a San-Francisco-based association of Syrians living outside their country. It is currently funding scholarships for 158 high-achieving young Syrians to study at top universities around the world, the majority of them in the United States.

“We’ve preferred to bring students to the West,” says the group’s director, Maya Alkateb-Chami. In Western countries “there are more opportunities to develop professional skills after graduation.”

Although it is expensive to bring refugees to study in the West, many feel the exposure to advanced democratic societies is worth it. Image @SPARK.

Like several other programs, Jusoor considers candidates’ commitment to serving the refugee community and their country as part of the scholarship selection process. “We look at it as long-term support for Syria,” says Alkateb-Chami. “So qualities of social responsibility and leadership are important.”

Although it is expensive to bring refugees to study in the West, many feel the exposure to advanced democratic societies is worth it. Sixty U.S. colleges and universities that belong to the Institute of International Education’s (IIE) Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis have provided scholarships to 333 Syrian refugees for study at their campuses since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011.

Allan Goodman, president of IIE, says the need is so great that he would like each of America’s 4,000 higher-education institutions to participate. “We’re asking each one to take a [refugee] student and a displaced teacher.”

Goodman says he has come to see that while tuition-free education may be a huge prize for young Syrian refugees, it is not enough. “We need to find money for travel expenses and year-round living expenses,” to further expand the program.

In Canada, the Student Refugee Program this year nearly doubled the number of refugee students it invited, adding 78 new places for Syrians. The program provides permanent resettlement in Canada as well as a full higher-education scholarship.

Germany, on the other hand, was presented with something of a fait accompli. With its Open Door policy, the country received far more refugees than any other European nation during the massive 2015 wave of arrivals–over a million. Among them were about 490,000 Syrians.

Officials estimate that 50,000 of the refugees in Germany­­—half of them Syrians—are eligible for higher education. Colleges and universities are tuition-free in Germany. Federal authorities have set aside 100 million Euros ($112 million) for a series of measures to help refugees successfully integrate into the country’s higher education between 2016 to 2019.

Those funds pay for intensive German language courses; foundation courses to prepare students for academic study (though officials say that because of Syria’s relatively advanced education system before the start of the war, three-quarters of Syrians don’t need such courses); tutoring; mentoring by fellow German students; and some living expenses.

“There is a lot going on at German universities to give these students a good start,” says Christian Hülshörster of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

Meanwhile, the new and expanding scholarship programs for study in the Middle East have been finding that they need more resources like the ones being provided in Germany. “We had originally intended to only pay tuition costs,” says Mustapha Jazar, founding director of the Lebanese Association for Scientific Research (LASeR), “but we quickly discovered we needed capacity-building” for students.

A year after starting one of the region’s first scholarship programs for Syrian refugees in 2013, LASeR did a needs assessment of its then-250 students. Using the results, it designed a summer program intended to reduce dropout rates and increase student success.

That program includes academic orientation, 120 hours of classes on English-language and communications skills, training in soft skills like study habits and time management, and counseling for students traumatized by the war raging in their country. LASeR now has 600 scholarship holders.

In addition to the 100 master’s-degree-level students it supports in the region, the EU-funded HOPES program also has a target of providing English-language training for 4,000 students through the British Council. HOPES director Walbiner says not only are science, engineering and medicine commonly taught in English in the Arab region, but subjects taught in Arabic often have a required course or two, like “introduction to international terminology,” which require at least an intermediate knowledge of English.

This is a particular problem for Syrians. Syrians are proud of their Arabic—even medicine is generally taught in Arabic in Syria. But the lack of English training has brought added difficulties for students who have left the country.

“Sometimes students can’t graduate because they can’t pass their small English-language requirement,” Walbiner says.

As scholarship programs in the region ramp up, they are feeling the need to coordinate, share information, and in some cases, develop joint application processes. The programs are also trying to prevent a repeat of a few cases where students were found to have falsified information on their applications in an attempt to receive support from two different scholarship providers.

As the first classes of refugee students begin to graduate, officials have new concerns.

At the same time, officials agree, “it is very important to safeguard the privacy of personal data” from potential abuse by governments or groups, says Maren Kroeger, an expert with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Kroeger helps run the group’s DAFI scholarship program, which is providing scholarships for 1,800 Syrian refugees this fall, a number that is set to increase shortly (DAFI is the German acronym for “Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative;” Germany is the largest funder of the program).

As the first classes of refugee students begin to graduate, officials have new concerns.The largest number of DAFI scholarships are for study in Turkey, the country with the biggest Syrian refugee population. The program includes a year of intensive Turkish-language lessons to prepare students for academic studies in the language.

Many of the various scholarship programs help local residents too. For example, Edu-Syria, funded by the European Union, is currently recruiting students for 1,000 new scholarships in Jordan. Three hundred places will be reserved for disadvantaged Jordanians.

Jacob Arts, an EU official in Amman, says the goal is to maintain host country support. “It’s very difficult for the Jordanian government to explain why so much support is going for Syrian relief when so many Jordanians need support.”

In June, several major programs held their first coordination conference in Amman. One decision that came out of the meeting was to task UNHCR with the job of trying to obtain transcripts from secondary schools and higher-education institutions in Syria for refugees who lack documentation of the studies they completed before leaving.

At the same time, officials say, refugees need help to compare the many scholarship and support programs on offer. In response, not only are programs adding academic counseling, but several providers, including IIE, HOPES, and UNESCO (which provides scholarships to 1,018 students in Jordan and Lebanon, one-third of them locals), are each building or expanding online clearinghouses of the opportunities available for refugees. (Al-Fanar Media has a scholarship database for all Arab students.)

As the first classes of refugee students begin to graduate, officials have new concerns. Many are asking the region’s governments to relax restrictions, or bans, on refugees’ right to work. Young people with a diploma and no work spells trouble, says HOPES director Walbiner.

“Many of them are really sick of being outside their country and want to go home. I fear many could get radicalized.”

And a few officials have begun thinking about how the skills and knowledge of these graduates can best be leveraged to support the eventual reconstruction of their shattered country.

“It may sound early,” says SPARK’s Du Pont, “but one day peace will break out. What will we do with all these [educated] people?”


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