For the past five years, I have been writing and editing stories about higher education in the Arab world. During this time, uprisings calling for change, justice, and democracy have propelled the region into more political conflicts, financial struggles, corruption, higher unemployment and an increased security grip. All of these forces have imprisoned many Arab youth, or forced them into exile.
I have developed a deep personal and professional interest in Arab refugee education. I am from Syria—a country with the largest refugee crisis in history—but I am also a journalist covering education who fully understands the importance of education in building advanced nations. Still, my interest—and that of my organization—is not focused merely on Syrians. Unfortunately, the Arab world is full of refugees and displaced people from many different nations: Iraqis, Libyans, Yemenis, Somalis, and Sudanese. Through my work, I have met hundreds of young men and women who have lost their parents, homes, homelands, and even limbs. But they have not lost their hope for a better future that could be realized with the help of a good education.
Last month, I was honored to be a keynote speaker at the University of Denver’s Internationalization Summit on the theme of “Refugees, Migration and the Internationalization of Higher Education.”
I was asked to speak about the situation of refugees in the Arab world, especially with regard to education, and to explain the importance of supporting refugee education as a way to promote educational internationalization for a better life on this planet. I went to the conference with many international reports and statistics about the number of refugees—which had hit 65.3 million by the end of 2015. Five million of these are from Syria, my country, where one person in every 113 is homeless—an asylum seeker, a displaced person, or a refugee.
Before I started in with the numbers, though, I thought I’d better be frank and admit to the audience that, eight years ago, I didn’t know much about the internationalization of education, even though I have three degrees from three different universities. So I started by speaking about how I learned about international education.
In 2009, I attended a Reuters training program in London on writing business news. I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to be trained at such a well-recognized news agency. And it offered me the chance to destroy some stereotypes I had. For the first time in my life, I met someone from Afghanistan, a journalist from a place where I thought people lived in caves and men had thick beards and carried guns all the time. That was the image I had gotten from media reports. So it was strange for me to meet a journalist my own age, clean-shaven and working on a laptop like mine, drafting a news report about stock exchange trading. I met another journalist from Hawaii, where I believed people just sat on the beach, drinking pineapple juice and eating coconuts and dancing all day. So I was surprised to learn that this journalist from Hawaii was like me, working at a local newspaper and trying to get better at writing stories about business fraud.
During that training program, I improved my writing skills. But more importantly, I expanded my knowledge about other people and other nations on this planet. For the first time I met colleagues from the Philippines, China, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia. Communicating with those people was a new kind of education. Despite our different appearances, languages and cultures, we sat together writing from the same notes given to us by our mentor, worked together to complete a single report, and asked the same questions to find the same answers.
At that moment, I started to realize what a more global education meant and saw its advantages. That is something that’s hard to understand unless you have experienced it.
A few years later, I had another chance to improve my understanding of internationalization of education. It was during a visit to the United States in May 2013 to attend a NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference for the first time. I was pleasantly surprised to see the city of St. Louis hosting a conference that gathered together thousands of people from all over the world to discuss the best ways to recruit students. Last year, I attended NAFSA for the second time, and again enjoyed meeting professors, students and university officers from different countries to talk about best practice, emerging trends, and new programs designed to attract students from all over the world.
But amid all these interesting discussions, I heard very little about the 65 million refugees around the world, many of whom are students, scholars, and academics. I heard little about helping young refugees integrate into the international higher education system to prepare themselves to help support their host communities now, and rebuild their war-torn countries later.
A discussion of internationalization of education cannot be comprehensive, realistic, or effective if it excludes millions of refugees and displaced persons. We all believe in education as a human right, and believe in the internationalization of education as a powerful and practical way to bridge the gap between industrialized nations and developing countries, so we can’t ignore millions of people who are harmed by political conflicts beyond their control. Recruiting students from all over the world should not be confined to rich students who can pay expensive fees; universities should not consider students as cash cows but as an added value to the education of all their students. Therefore, true internationalization should include students for whom a good education is a lifeline, and who believe in education as a road to a better life. Promoting higher education for refugees is critical to the success of the internationalization of education.
During my preparation for the Internationalization Summit, the U.S. president issued a travel ban on citizens from seven Arab countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—travelling to the United States. He also suspended refugee arrivals. When I read the news, I assumed that my participation in the summit would be canceled, even though I have a valid visa to the United States. I also suspected that the whole summit might be canceled, or that at the very least it would change its topic. I wrote to the person at the University of Denver who had invited me and told him I understood if he had to cancel my participation.
But I got a very kind note back from him saying he really wanted me to still take part in the summit if possible and confirming that “the summit topic will be the same as it really needs to be addressed and discussed now.”
We talked about the possibility of me participating virtually via Skype, but later the ban was partially lifted and I was able to travel to the summit, since I had a valid U.S. visa.
I mention this because I think it is a great example of the real role of universities in enhancing the internationalization of education—supporting academic freedom, and keeping the door open for discussion between people from all over the world when the other doors are slammed shut due to political conflicts and alleged security concerns.
It is essential for academic institutions to take a real and active interest in supporting refugee education, especially given that higher education is not usually included in the services provided by humanitarian agencies during conflicts. Academic institutions can help by providing more scholarships for refugee students, and offering online courses, psychological support and cultural activities that help refugees and host communities integrate. They can provide the technical expertise of their faculty members and the enthusiasm of volunteering students to help out at schools and universities in countries flooded with refugees. And, finally, universities can – and have the responsibility to – work to change stereotypes about refugees that portray them as a burden and a problem, rather than what they really are: human beings trying to survive, to work and to bring something of value to their host communities.
Editor’s note: This commentary was adapted from Rasha Faek’s speech at a conference on “Refugees, Migration and the Internationalization of Higher Education,” organized by the University of Denver, in Denver, April 14, 2017.