In 2016, Abdulrahman Alhaddad escaped from ISIS-controlled Raqqa, in Syria, and ended up in a refugee camp in Lebanon. A year later, he managed to win a scholarship to a university in Beirut. But the trauma he had been through left its marks. Angry, depressed, and unable to concentrate on his studies, he watched helplessly as his life was falling apart.
Then his scholarship provider stepped in with additional support. He was sent to see a psychiatrist, was prescribed anti-depression medication and began weekly psychotherapy sessions. Later he joined a support group with other Syrian refugee students who had gone through similar experiences. His psychological state improved, his grades shot up and his social life went from barren and angry to rich and satisfying.
Tens of thousands of young Syrians who fled their country as refugees are enrolled in universities in neighboring countries and outside the region. The international groups that stepped in to provide them with university scholarships did so in part to ensure the presence of educated young people to help rebuild their country when the conflict finally ends.
Yet even today, many refugee students struggle on their own with psychological scars from the ordeals they have endured. Having lost their support networks, often uncertain about their futures and the safety of the families they left behind, and sometimes having lived through violence and trauma, many Syrians suffer some degree of depression, anxiety, and trouble concentrating on their studies.
But the experiences of Alhaddad and others like him are beginning to convince groups supporting refugee students that in addition to university scholarships, they need psychosocial support to be successful.
Tending to Psychological Needs
“When we started providing scholarships in 2015, it was originally very basic—just scholarships,” says Jeltsje de Blauw, regional program manager for the Middle East and Turkey at SPARK, a Dutch nongovernmental organization that is the largest provider of higher education scholarships for Syrian refugees—over 10,000 to date. (See a related article, “Donor Interest Fades in Scholarships for Refugees.”)
“When we started providing scholarships in 2015, it was originally very basic—just scholarships. But then we found there were many factors affecting academic progress, including the psychological situation.”Jeltsje de Blauw
Regional program manager for the Middle East and Turkey at SPARK
“But then we found there were many factors affecting academic progress, including the psychological situation.”
SPARK has developed a three-level pyramid of psychosocial support: 1. large recreational events, often around a specific theme, like stress management, open to all scholarship holders; 2. support groups led by a trained counselor for those who want more help; and 3. individual psychotherapy for those needing the greatest intervention.
“One of biggest challenges is still the stigma related to this,” says de Blauw. “That’s why we start softer, without calling it psychosocial support.” At the end of the larger events, students are invited to sign up for a support group or to be screened for individual therapy.
‘You Are Not Going Through This Alone’
De Blauw says interest in such support remains strong. The support was first provided in Lebanon, starting in 2019, and was later added by SPARK to its programs in Iraq, Jordan, Palestine and Turkey. An estimated 2,000 scholarship holders, 90 percent of them Syrian, have taken part in some way so far.
The support groups typically each have up to a dozen participants, and last for ten weekly sessions. At the meetings, participants share their problems and are taught such skills as how to negotiate with others, stress management, anger management, and time management. Yoga, breathing, and self-awareness exercises are generally employed as well.
“The main idea is, you are not going through this alone,” says Amanda Aoun, who has been responsible for developing and leading SPARK’s psychosocial support. She is Lebanese with a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Kingston University, in London.
Participants in support groups “build a peer support network and are eager to help each other through these difficult moments,” says Aoun.
She adds that self-reporting on standardized psychological questionnaires has shown “major improvements” in students’ well-being after such interventions. Dropout rates have also fallen.
One Syrian Student’s Journey
That was certainly the case for Abdulrahman Alhaddad. He orginally began his higher education in a pharmacy program in Damascus. But after Syria began its hellish descent into civil war, he reluctantly stopped his studies and returned to his hometown of Raqqa, in northern Syria. Then ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, took over the city and declared it the capital of its caliphate. (See a related article, “What Education Is Like Under the Islamic State.”)
Things became untenable for Alhaddad. A blockade of the city led to the closure of the pharmacy where Alhaddad worked as an assistant; a classmate who had insulted ISIS was shot and his body left in the street for three days as a warning to others; and Alhaddad himself was detained and given 20 lashes after having been caught smoking.
A year after fleeing to Lebanon, he won a SPARK scholarship and enrolled in an undergraduate biomedical program at the Lebanese International University. But he suffered from stomach pains, was unable to sleep or concentrate on his studies, and was soon failing most of his classes.
He says that after joining his first of several SPARK support groups, he finally “was in a community I felt comfortable with. I made friends and became more sociable. Now I’m successful in my personal life and studies and work.”
Alhaddad adds that without the support, he fears he would have ended up on the street, alone and homeless.
Added Causes for Stress in Lebanon
Like the other Syrian refugees and the local population, SPARK’s approximately 500 scholarship holders in Lebanon have been going through a particularly hard time for the past year or two.
First came the country’s economic collapse and the “revolution” protesting the country’s mismanagement. Then the Covid-19 pandemic made things worse, forcing support groups to go online. (See a related article, “Lebanon’s Double Crisis Crushes Both Students and Universities.”)
On top of those calamities came the massive explosion in Beirut’s port on August 4, 2020, which killed some 200 people and injured more than 6,000 while flattening parts of the city.
The blast was “a massive triggering event, leading to more anxiety and stress,” says de Blauw. “Our students feel tremendous insecurity.”
At the same time, Lebanon, which has the highest per capita proportion of refugees in the world, bars them from taking most jobs, and has denied many of them residency permits or any other permanent status. (See the related articles “Little Hope of Jobs for Syrians in Lebanon and Jordan” and “Syrian Refugees Are Often Steered Into Illegal Jobs.”)
“The period between when a refugee student is accepted and their travel to university is a good time to start communicating with them about potential problems and who can help.”Alexandra Chen
A Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University who works with refugees from conflict zones
According to de Blauw, the experience of supporting Syrian refugee students in several Middle Eastern countries has provided valuable lessons for SPARK, which provides scholarships in other conflict and post-conflict areas of the world, and its donors. “The biggest lesson learned is that psychosocial support is actually an integral part of a scholarship program.”
A Call for Universities to Do More
Meanwhile, other experts working with Syrian refugee students outside of the region, say higher education institutions themselves should do more.
“It’s not rocket science,” says Alexandra Chen, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University and mental health expert working with refugees from conflict zones. “Any university that accepts students from a refugee background should take on greater responsibility for their mental health.”
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She says this includes providing counselors and therapists who are familiar with the language and culture of the refugees. She adds that because refugee students are so often at risk of psychological problems due to PTSD, survivors’ guilt, and uncertainty about their post-university asylum status, psychological support should be offered before difficulties show up.
“The period between when a refugee student is accepted and their travel to university is a good time to start communicating with them about potential problems and who can help.”