Adrian Melendez, a Mexican, first met Jackdar Mohammed, a Syrian, at a freshly constructed refugee camp in northern Iraq in March of 2013. Mohammed, both a refugee and a volunteer at the camp, jokingly offered the Mexican a spicy meal. A year later that encounter had changed both of their lives—and many others’ lives as well.
When Melendez first met Mohammed, he was working for Un Ponte Per, an Italian NGO partnered with the United Nations to support Syrian refugees in Iraq.
After a short conversation, Melendez asked Mohammed if he’d like to a work for UPP. Unemployed and recently displaced from Damascus, Mohammed immediately took the offer.
One day Melendez asked Mohammed how he could help Syrian refugees. “Dropping out of school in Syria had broken my heart, so I said: ‘Education, give them education, and they will move on with their lives’,” says Mohammed.
That sentence struck a chord with Melendez, so he decided to start a project called Habesha that would bring refugee students to Mexico. Since then, 10 Syrian students, including Mohammed, have gone to Aguascalientes, Mexico, where they prepare to move on to a variety of Mexican universities. The hope is that if a middle-income country like Mexico can help refugees to get a university education, then other such countries could do the same.
“I saw that refugees like Jack Mohammed had strong education and knowledge that were wasted in the camps,” Melendez says.
Melendez initially thought creating the program would be straightforward, but it took him 18 months of full-time work before the first Syrian arrived in Mexico City in September of 2015.
“It was a long process. We involved diplomats and Middle Eastern major academics who knew the situation. We started putting the map together,” he recalls.
Since it was officially launched in January of 2015, Habesha has sought to crowd fund full scholarships and monthly stipends for 30 Syrian students to study at the best private universities in Mexico.
Melendez started the project with $40,000 of his life savings. Almost all the money was spent on early legal and logistics arrangements. The program later received media attention and more businessmen and celebrities started to donate.
Today, the program has reached close to half its current target of 30 Syrian students. Ten students are already in Mexico learning Spanish and preparing to enroll in universities, and four more scholarship grantees are waiting to come.
“We have candidates from all over Syria. From a refugee camp in Iraq, east and west Aleppo, Al-Hasakah Tartus, Kobani and Daraa,” says Melendez.
Potential candidates are nominated by partnering NGOs like Jusoor and IIE’s Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis.
Maya Al-Kateb, the director of Jusoor, says there weren’t many NGOs working in this field when Jusoor was asked for nominees.
The nominated students then needed to pass three interviews with Habesha’s recruiting board before receiving scholarships.
Mohammed was studying economics at Damascus University when he and his family were displaced from Al-Sabinah, a rural town south of the Syrian capital, because of intense fighting. He continued to study during the day and work at night as a supermarket cashier in the capital until he was shot in the chest by a sniper.
He moved to the Domiz refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, where another 160,000 Syrians were seeking refuge. Initially, Mohammed had hoped to continue his education in the Arab world, so he sent his documents to the ministry of education in Irbil. A long time passed without a response.
“I finally went to their office. My papers were still lying in the same box where I left them two years before. They were covered in dust,” he says. That’s when he knew he would have to leave the Iraq to get a degree.
In March of this year, Mohammed secured a student visa from the Mexican embassy in Tehran. He now lives in the central Mexican city of Aguascalientes, where he shares an apartment with two other students. His week is divided among intensive Spanish lessons, studying and socializing with other Habesha students and volunteers.
“When I start university next year, of course I won’t be perfect, but I will be able to express myself, and I will use a web translator to help,” he said.
Mohammed will study project management at the University of Monterrey beginning next January. Before enrolling, the university asked Mohammed to take the SAT test, which is usually required by college applicants in the United States.
The university is one of six partnering institutions that have offered free tuition for Syrian students. Since the organization was established, many Mexican universities have come forward to help, but Melendez only took the best.
“These are very good and expensive universities. Very few Mexicans can afford those schools,” he says.
It was easy to convince the University of Monterrey to offer places. “It took less than five minutes to convince the president to give two Syrian students full scholarships,” said Agustin Landa, the vice president for development at the university.
The scholarship includes free tuition and accommodation, which amounts to around $16,000 a year – a significant sum in a country where the average annual income is $8,200.
“They were so generous. Some universities would take a year to sign an agreement. This university did it in a very fast-track way,” says Melendez.
More than 85 percent of University of Monterrey graduates find jobs within the first three months after graduation. “It will be even faster for the Syrian students because of their life experience,” Landa said. He believes the Syrian students are more mature because of the struggles they have been through in the war.
For Mohammed, his post-graduation plans are clear. He wants to start a micro-finance project for small businesses in Syria. “I want to help other Syrians continue their studies. In five years, we will be successful people continuing our success in Syria,” he says.