As a generation of Syrian refugees comes of age, what future awaits?

Why We Wrote This

As conflicts drag on, aid that once effectively supported refugee populations may need recalibrating. That is particularly relevant for students who have excelled academically but face huge barriers to college.

Taylor Luck
Syrian medical student Shahem Al Boni, fresh off his first week of on-the-job training at Prince Hamza Hospital, stands on the rooftop of his apartment in Amman, Jordan, on Aug. 31, 2019.

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Muath Al Hariri recently traveled 50 miles from his family’s apartment in Irbid, Jordan, to the capital, Amman, for a scholarship interview with a United Nations agency that could determine his university dreams.

“If I don’t get a scholarship,” he says, “I will only have one choice: migrate to Europe.”

Seven years since the outbreak of a civil war drove 5 million Syrians into neighboring states for safety, an entire generation of Syrian children educated in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt is now coming of age.

Billions of dollars have been spent on primary and secondary schooling for these students. But when it comes time for university, most Syrians suddenly find themselves alone competing for limited opportunities. Besides scholarships, online learning opportunities are being developed to give students more options. But without a clear pathway, especially for tackling the financial burdens, many Syrian students are struggling to achieve their dream of college. 

Helping refugees pursue degrees and return to their countries should be a priority, say diplomats and observers. Reversing the brain drain of failed states such as Syria, they note, will fast-track reconstruction, improve regional stability, and slow future waves of refugees heading to Europe’s shores.

Staying up late into the night buried in his textbooks, Shahem Al Boni couldn’t fight the feeling that it was all a waste of time.

Long a top student at his Amman high school, he turned page after page of chemistry, physics, and math formulas to shake off the voice telling him that university was not meant for him.

“You are in the middle of cramming for exams that will dictate your future, and you keep asking yourself: Why am I even doing this?” says Mr. Al Boni. “I am a refugee.”

Seven years since the outbreak of a civil war drove 5 million Syrians into neighboring states for safety, an entire generation of Syrian children educated in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt is now coming of age.

Even though billions in donor dollars have been spent on primary and secondary schooling, when it comes time for university, most Syrians suddenly find themselves alone competing for limited opportunities. Nongovernmental organizations are helping develop options, such as online learning, and some scholarships are also available. But without a clear pathway, especially for tackling the financial burdens, many Syrian students are struggling to achieve their dream of college. 

“Despite the strong commitment to supporting access to education for refugee children, many of those who arrived at the beginning of the crisis are now finishing their schooling and await an uncertain future,” says Lilly Carlisle, spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Jordan.

Helping students pursue degrees and return to needed positions in their countries should be a priority, say diplomats and observers. Reversing the brain-drain of failed states such as Syria, they note, will fast-track reconstruction, improve regional stability, and slow future waves of refugees heading to Europe’s shores. 

Currently, 5% of all Syrian refugees have access to higher education – slightly higher than the international average of 3% of refugees worldwide, but well below the 37% global enrollment rate, according to the U.N

In Jordan, more than half of Syrian students say their family’s financial difficulties are the greatest obstacle to going to university, according to a 2018 survey by the University of Jordan Center for Strategic Studies. Prior to the start of the 2011 civil war, tuition in Syria was free and a right guaranteed by the state.

“The No. 1 challenge for displaced and refugee students who want to continue their studies is funding,” says Nele Feldmann, head of student emergency initiatives at the Institute of International Education (IIE). “Many students drop out of their studies because they become caregivers for their families and need to work; others are discouraged by the lack of employment opportunities after graduation.”

In Jordan, 145,000 Syrian refugees are in the education system. Syrian students consistently place among the top 10 scores for the General Secondary Education Certificate (Tawjihi) exam. Results from the test are a main criterion for university admissions in the Arab world. 

But as noncitizens, they must pay international student tuition fees, which can be many times more than their Jordanian counterparts. A four-year degree at some Jordanian universities can reach $80,000 – an amount that is out of reach for families that are in debt, rely on aid to pay rent, and are restricted to working in low-wage sectors. 

Rama Darawish, who scored a 98.8 on the 2019 Tawjihi exam, has resorted to making appeals in the local news and social media to raise funds to allow her to study medicine and become a doctor.

Dina, 16, who requested that only her first name be used, is preparing for the Tawjihi exam this fall. She hopes to be the first woman in her family to go on to university, and is cautiously eyeing her peers’ struggles.

“It is as if they told us to reach for a life that is not open to us because we have no country,” she says.

Scholarships and technology offer hope

With no programs in place to provide student loans, Syrians often turn to scholarships. 

“Due to the high cost of university education in Jordan, the majority of refugees rely on scholarships to continue their learning, but places are limited – and it is a challenge they face all over the world,” says Ms. Carlisle, from the UNHCR.

According to the Center for Strategic Studies survey, 22% of Syrian university students in Jordan say they have secured scholarships. 

Muath Al Hariri traveled 50 miles from his family’s apartment in Irbid, northern Jordan, to Amman for an interview with UNHCR staff that could determine his university dreams.

He is counting on help from the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative (DAFI). Since 1992, it has handed out more than 15,500 scholarships for refugees worldwide and has become Syrian refugees’ best hope. DAFI offers full tuition for universities in host countries; this year 1,000 refugees will compete for 40 scholarships in Jordan through the U.N.

Mr. Al Hariri scored 91 on his Tawjihi exam – recognized as excellent – but is concerned that it will not be enough. “I knew I had to be among the very best to even have a shot at university,” he says. More than 5,000 Syrians graduated high school last spring in Jordan, a number increasing with each school year.

“If I don’t get a scholarship,” he says, “I will only have one choice: migrate to Europe.”

Mr. Al Boni, who is now in college, received a DAFI scholarship. His family has lived the past seven years in Jordan by selling off their properties and ancestral home in Hama, Syria. He says university would be impossible without help.

Another potential solution for students is blended learning – a combination of online e-learning and face-to-face instruction, which practitioners say would allow refugees to study remotely and at their own pace, introduce them to different learning styles, and allow them to retain jobs or provide care to their families in host communities.

Mosaik, an NGO supported by UK Aid and the Open Society Foundations, is pioneering a model by providing English classes and workshops at community centers and online to help refugees identify scholarships and overcome language obstacles.

Studies by UNHCR in Jordan last year saw a potential for blended learning, with large acceptance among Syrian refugees for online courses, but noted that connectivity issues remain for many Syrians either due to cost or network coverage.

“Students living in displacement often don’t have the physical space to study in a quiet environment, they may not have access to a personal computer at any time, and many students want to connect to other students and teachers as part of their higher education experience,” says Ms. Feldmann, at the IIE.

“Our nation will be lost”

Clad in his white lab coat, stethoscope looped around his neck, Mr. Al Boni has just returned home from the end of his first week of on-the-job training at Prince Hamza Hospital.

Entering his third year studying medicine at The Hashemite University, he has perfected his bedside manner and already latched onto his field of choice: neurology. 

He insists he is not looking to practice in Jordan or the West; he is anxiously waiting to return to Syria to open up practice in his hometown of Hama.

“Doctors, engineers, and lawyers all left Syria during the war; if no one comes back our nation will be lost for 100 years,” Mr. Al Boni says in perfect, crisp English. “What Syria really needs right now is a good doctor.” 

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