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Students, staff and faculty at Guilford College welcome refugees.

Photo by Kat Miller

Of the more than four million Syrian refugees in the Middle East and North Africa, the Institute of International Education (IIE) estimates that as many as 450,000 are 18-22 years old. Of that group, it assumes based on prewar enrollment rates that 90,000 to 110,000 are qualified for university.

More than four years into Syria's civil war, the number of displaced would-be university students may well be even higher. “The problem is snowballing,” said James King, the senior research and communications manager at IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund. “You now have 25-year-olds who would have gone to university when they were 22 but have never been able to access it.”

As the world has refocused its attention on the scale of the Syrian refugee crisis, the question of how to help those who’ve fled the conflict obtain higher education has gained renewed urgency.

Yannick Du Pont, the director of SPARK, a Dutch nongovernmental organization that offers higher education and entrepreneurship programs for young people from conflict-affected societies, said that many of the refugees coming into Europe are expressing frustration with the lack of higher education opportunities.

“The first inclination is ‘OK, we should provide food and drink and shelter,’ and of course we should; it’s essential,” said Du Pont. “But people want to develop themselves, especially the youth.”

SPARK focuses its scholarship programs on the vast majority of Syrian refugees who remain in the Middle East. “It’s so much more cost-efficient to invest in the region than it is to wait for people to get tired of having no hope in the region and move to Europe or the U.S.,” Du Pont said. “Investing now in creating opportunity in the region is really essential for these people so they have hope they can contribute to the reconstruction of their country, so they can involve themselves in something besides just existing.”

Keith David Watenpaugh, an associate professor and director of human rights studies at the University of California at Davis, has co-authored three reports in collaboration with IIE about Syrian refugees and access to higher education in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, respectively. The obstacles that refugees face vary somewhat by country, though a common thread is financial challenge.

In Jordan, comparatively high tuition fees and living costs and a lack of travel and academic documents impede many refugees’ ability to enroll in higher education. In Lebanon, a country with a prewar population of four million and more than one million Syrian refugees, Watenpaugh and his co-authors found political tensions to be among the factors impacting the ability of Syrian refugees to access higher education, while in Turkey, Arabic-speaking Syrians face a language barrier.

The report on Syrians and higher education in Turkey -- which hosts nearly half of all Syrian refugees -- praises the government for its "humane and forward-thinking policy that aims to facilitate the integration of Syrians at Turkish universities" while identifying "significant gaps between this policy and its implementation." That report, published last fall, concluded that the overwhelming majority of university-aged Syrian refugees in Turkey, as many as 98 percent, were not continuing any form of higher education, but it also noted that Syrian enrollment rates at Turkish universities were increasing rapidly. New statistics provided to IIE by Turkey's Council of Higher Education show an increase in Syrian student enrollment from approximately 1,800 students in 2013-14 to more than 5,600 in 2014-15.

In May, the European Union committed 12 million euros (about $13.5 million) to pay for scholarships and short-term higher education courses for Syrians in the Middle East. “The real missing piece is a lack of attention of U.S. higher education to this problem,” said Watenpaugh. “What would be really great would be programs where American universities create relationships with universities in the region, where we help finance the tuition of students for a couple of years and then maybe they can come to the United States for a another year. The ultimate goal I would like to achieve is that U.S. higher education bears some of the burden.”

“What would be a game changer would be if every college and university in America agreed to take a Syrian student,” said Allan E. Goodman, the president of IIE, which has, since 2012, managed a consortium of universities that have committed to host threatened scholars and provide scholarships to Syrian students. Through its Scholar Rescue Fund, IIE grants fellowships for threatened professors, including 80 scholars from Syria since the conflict began. Just 13 universities in Europe and the U.S. currently list scholarships for Syrian students in the consortium’s database, the awards ranging from full tuition scholarships to 20 percent tuition discounts. In some cases the funding gap to be covered by the student after the scholarship is $20,000 or more.

“The way the pope has asked every monastery, diocese, church in Europe to take in a Syrian family, this is the kind of crisis where you need everybody to step up,” Goodman said.

“We’ve learned that a scholarship is not enough,” Goodman continued. “It’s relatively easy to get compassionate universities and colleges to say we’ll forgo tuition, but what we have to come up with is the airfare and ticket to get them out of Syria or out of the camp to the U.S. or to Europe and the living expenses while they’re a student. It’s not enough just to say 'tuition-free' or go to countries where tuition is free. You’ve also got to have the resources for that supplemental grant.”

The World University Service of Canada (WUSC), a nonprofit organization, brings in refugee students with the pledge of full financial support for their first year. For the current academic year, it identified Canadian university placements for 86 refugee students recruited from camps and cities in Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Malawi, Malaysia and Thailand, including 10 students originally from Syria, according to Michelle Manks, the manager of campus engagement and WUSC’s Student Refugee Program.

The program, which is possible because of a Canadian policy that allows private organizations to sponsor refugees, relies on student committees at participating universities to raise funds for a refugee’s expenses and/or negotiate discounts from the university for tuition and room and board. In many cases student bodies have voted to impose on themselves a fee -- which, Manks said, varies from 25 Canadian cents ($0.18) to almost 20 dollars ($15) per student -- to fund expenses for a student refugee. And because the student comes to Canada with permanent resident status -- Manks described World University Service of Canada’s student refugee program as the only such program that combines higher education and resettlement -- the student is eligible for domestic tuition rates and able to work as other Canadian students would.

One beneficiary of this program, Abdulrahman al-Masri, a student from Syria now in his second year of his undergraduate program in political science at Carleton University, in Ottawa, said he was able to apply for -- and receive -- Canadian government loans to finance his education. Al-Masri said he studied banking and financial science at Damascus University before leaving for Jordan in 2012. Studying in Jordan was prohibitively expensive. “I was applying everywhere,” he said. “I took my English test; I kept applying to universities in the U.S. and Australia. I was just trying to find scholarships.” A partial scholarship was not enough, he said. Further, there was the problem of travel, as his Syrian passport was due to expire in August of 2014. He was able to leave Jordan with a one-time travel document from Canada.

These challenges -- a lack of travel or academic documentation (al-Masri couldn't transfer any credit from Damascus University because he lacks the transcripts) and financial hardship -- are common among refugees. Demand for available scholarships far exceeds supply. When Germany started a Leadership for Syria scholarship program last fall, it received about 5,000 applications for 221 spots. The scholarships, 200 of which were funded by the federal foreign office and the remainder of which were funded by the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, were open to students who were still within Syria as well as to refugees.

The awardees, who will start classes this fall, are distributed across 21 universities in Germany and many are enrolled in programs taught in English, according to Christian Huelshoerster of the German Academic Exchange Service, which administers the program. In addition to covering living expenses -- university tuition in Germany is free -- Huelshoerster said the scholarships will also cover supplemental education in topics like good governance and civil society. “It’s our contribution to building a future elite for Syria if one day it is possible for them to return to their home country,” he said.

The German Academic Exchange Service is also administering another batch of 50 scholarships funded by the state of Baden-Württemberg as well as a Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development-funded program to offer scholarships in Jordan -- 40 scholarships each for Syrians and for Jordanians living in neighborhoods affected by high numbers of Syrian refugees. (IIE has also started a pilot From Camps to Campus scholarship initiative in Jordan, for which it has just selected its first six students.)

The German government is also the largest sponsor of the United Nations' Refugee Agency’s DAFI scholarship program, which in 2014 awarded 2,240 scholarships to refugees studying at the university level. The largest group of scholarship recipients comes from Sub-Saharan Africa, but demand for the scholarship is growing most quickly in the Middle East and Turkey, in countries of asylum for Syrian refugees, said Johannes Tarvainen, tertiary education officer for the Division of International Protection at the U.N. refugee agency, which goes by the acronym UNHCR.

“An important part of UNHCR’s work is to mainstream access to international education systems,” said Tarvainen. “We engage in consistent advocacy so that refugees can access higher education at the same terms as nationals.” In addition to providing scholarships, UNHCR also offers blended online and on-site higher education programs in refugee camps through partners, including Borderless Higher Education for Refugees, a consortium of Canadian and Kenyan universities, and a Jesuit university consortium, the Jesuit Commons.

Beyond its own programs, “we have seen, and UNHCR is actively encouraging, new scholarship initiatives, either in host countries or in third countries,” Tarvainen said. “We recommend that whenever possible access to higher education should be provided in the host country” -- that is, the first country of asylum -- “however, it can also be provided in a third country as long as all the refugee-specific circumstances are taken into account. If for example there is a scholarship initiative in a third country, let’s say in Europe or the U.S.A., it is of utmost importance that the legal status of the student is clear from the outset.”

In addition to being clear about the refugee student’s legal status -- will the student have the right to work, for example, or to stay in the third country after graduation? -- Tarvainen said scholarship grantees also need to secure sustainable funding, to be able to ensure that any scholarship they provide covers the full expected duration of a refugee student’s course of study. Lastly, he said institutions need to attend to the special psychosocial needs of refugees who may have experienced trauma, as well as to their language and other academic support needs.

Over the past couple weeks, a number of individual institutions in Europe and North America have announced new initiatives aimed at supporting refugees. A noncomprehensive list:

  • The University of York, in England, announced 500,000 pounds (more than $750,000) of support for refugee-related initiatives over three years, including full fee waivers and cost-of-living grants of up to £8,100 (more than $12,000) for three undergraduates per year who are seeking asylum status in the U.K. The university also plans to organize a series of public events about the refugee crisis and to host two refugee scholars in collaboration with IIE’s Scholar Rescue Program, which requires host institutions to provide matching funding.
  • In online or blended learning initiatives, Kiron University, a nonprofit organization based in Germany, has launched a crowd-funding campaign to provide free education to refugees. Kiron's model is based on a combination of massive open online courses and a year at a partner university. Meanwhile, the University of the People, a tuition-free online institution, announced it is starting a scholarship fund to waive its examination fees for refugees with financial need.
  • In Canada, Algoma and Trent Universities and the University of Regina are among the institutions that have publicly announced commitments to increase the number of students they host through World University Service of Canada.
  • The University of Alberta announced that a new President’s Award for Refugees and Displaced Persons will pay for tuition and living costs for up to 10 undergraduate or graduate students from Syria.
  • Western University, in Ontario, also announced plans to establish scholarships covering tuition and living costs for up to 10 Syrian students. In addition, the university is raising funds to resettle a Syrian refugee family in London at an estimated cost of 30,000 Canadian dollars ($22,514) for a family of five.
  • At Guilford College, in North Carolina, Diya Abdo, an associate professor and chair of English and creative writing, has organized an Every Campus a Refuge campaign that advocates for every campus to house a refugee family, either in its on-campus housing or by fund-raising for an off-campus apartment. Abdo, who proposes reimagining a university campus as “a space that has in fact all the resources that we need to provide for, support and care for a refugee family,” suggested that colleges could work with local resettlement agencies to offer housing to a family. She said that Guilford’s president has expressed support for such an initiative. (A Guilford spokesman, Dan Nonte, confirmed that while there are no detailed plans at this point, the administration has determined that “if we get to the point that there’s a need for emergency housing that Guilford will step up to the plate to help.”)

Maya Alkateb-Chami, the director of Jusoor, an organization of Syrian expatriates that provides scholarships to Syrian students in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East and a key partner in the IIE-managed Syria consortium, said she would like to see more universities get involved in providing higher education assistance to refugees. The organization is currently raising money for a new scholarship program that would provide grants of up to $50,000 to 100 Syrian women to study at primarily North American universities.

“We recognize limits in funding, but we also would like to see more involvement and highlight the added value of supporting a student from Syria on a university campuses in the U.S. in terms of contribution to campus life,” Alkateb-Chami said, explaining that they can share their perspectives on the conflict. “This is one of the catastrophic humanitarian crises in this century, so it’s very important to have this representation.”

Tarvainen, of the U.N. Refugee Agency, said the key challenge remains one of access. “The scale of Syrian displacement is huge and has rapidly expanded over the course of recent years. At the same time we have a very highly educated population who has left their country of origin suddenly either by disrupting their higher education studies or [having their education be] discontinued after successfully finishing secondary school. So not only is the total number of people high but demand for higher education is very high as it is also the key lifeline and a key element of hope in a situation of sudden disruption."

At the same time, Tarvainen noted that Syrian refugees are not alone in their higher education needs. Globally, he said, it’s estimated that less than 1 percent of refugees have access to higher education.

“Higher education needs at the moment are of course very visible for Syrian refugees,” he said, “but I think it’s also important to point out other refugee populations, like Afghans, like Somalis, like Congolese, like Sudanese, face equally important higher education needs.”

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