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Barred from the Classroom for Too Long: Why the U.S. Should Do More for Syrians Pursuing Higher Education

“Without this scholarship, I couldn’t have studied and would have gone back to Syria to fight.” These words, uttered by a Syrian refugee awarded a SPARK scholarship to attend university in neighboring Turkey, express the reality that thousands of college-aged refugees face.

Attending college is a rite of passage for young adults around the world, but also a daunting task and precious opportunity that many take for granted. The process requires research, support, and investment but in today’s globalized economy having an undergraduate degree has become an expectation, not a privilege. Since the Syrian crisis began almost six years ago, the international humanitarian community has focused on providing basic needs-food, shelter, and clothing- to displaced youth. But as the war drags on with no clear end in sight, it has become evident that many young Syrians will not return to their home country or university to complete their education.

As more and more displaced people stream into Turkey every day, the international community can no longer dismiss this lack of access to education as a temporary or localized issue. Education is a human right and one of the clearest ways we can mitigate the effects of the war. Turkey has done a remarkable job welcoming over three million Syrian refugees in the last five years, but the Turkish higher education system does not have the resources nor capacity to educate an entire generation of Syrians. The United States’ higher education system is arguably the best in the world, yet very few colleges and universities have reacted to the international crisis. The number of US schools offering full scholarships and transitional support for Syrian refugees is alarmingly low, especially when compared to countries with much lower GDPs.

The US government, along with private and public universities, should do more by offering scholarships, visas, and transitional support to Syrian college students in and outside of the US. If we don’t, we will watch as an entire generation of inspiring, bright minds go wasted, hurting not only the future potential of Syria but the stability and security of the world.

Before conflict erupted, Syria had a burgeoning higher education system that represented one of the largest in the Middle East. According to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, around 26% of Syria’s young people were enrolled in tertiary education before the conflict, which means that when the conflict began about 350,000 men and women were studying and 8, 000 faculty were teaching and conducting research. According to Brookings, around 150,000 university-qualified Syrians who were enrolled in university or on track to do so when war broke out are now without access to schools. In Turkey, refugees who were able to fund their education at home now have to fight to even pay rent, especially in cities with large populations of displaced Syrians.

In order for the US to become a more effective actor in what the UNHCR refers to as a “protracted crisis,” Americans should first understand how the Turkish higher education system has and continues to give displaced students the opportunity to study, which will allow us to support Turkey and use their best practices and lessons as a foundation from which to build.

Students in Turkey: Current Climate

Turkey has supported and educated more Syrian refugees than any other country. A 2014 report released by IIE and the University of California Davis praised Turkey for its forward-thinking policy and various college access programs, but found “significant gaps between this policy and its implementation,” explaining that “the process for non-Turkish citizens to apply is complex, decentralized, and subject to shifting national and university- specific regulations.” To apply, students must pass a centralized entrance exam, have basic mastery of Turkish or English, submit necessary IDs, and then score well on a university-specific test. Public universities do not actively recruit international students because most Turkish attendees are sent to them via high school test scores based on the country-wide exam results, making it harder for Syrian students to be contacted or receive information.

The percentage of Syrian refugees attending formal schools was very low in 2014, around 2%, but rates are increasing every year. Turkey’s Council of Higher Education reported an increase from approximately 1,800 Syrian students in 2013-14 to more than 5,600 in 2014-15.

This is partly due to the Turkish government and international NGO’s increased response to the obstacles facing refugees. In the 2014-15 school year, all Turkish universities were given permission to enroll Syrians as “special students,” allowing them to audit classes without being able to matriculate. Last year, the government also ramped up the amount of funding available, offering 5, 000 scholarships specifically for Syrian students as part of the Türkiye Scholarship Program. Some schools have begun offering Arabic programs to bridge the language gap while proposals for schools committed exclusively to serving young Syrian refugees have turned into a reality with institutions such as Zahra University, which opened last year.

Documentation is a huge obstacle that has not adequately been addressed. Most Syrian refugees flee their homeland without packing passports, academic certificates, and transcripts, and are often harassed if they go to the Syrian embassy to try to obtain these documents. However, some countries including Turkey now administer an exam to ensure that the student is ready for study. For example, University of Gaziantep admitted 100 SPARK scholarship students under the precondition that they would take this exam during the summer. The Syrian Interim Government is also working on a type of verification system for students without academic transcripts.

During an IIE workshop held at Koç University in 2016 which focused on Syrians access to education, participants called for an international secure online database that would house refugees’ information including classes taken and grades so that academic information could be transferred if they moved. Multi-country collaboration on innovative and stream-lined processes such as this database are necessary so that other countries can quickly accept Syrian college students and prepare for future waves of refugees.

But even if students jump over all these hurdles and are accepted into a program, extra support is needed to ensure they show up for class and keep coming. This support includes, according to the IIE, “stipends that cover the cost of housing, transportation and books, and offset the loss of income to refugee families of having a young person study rather than work.” According to a recent New York Times article, most school-aged Syrians live outside camps where schools are less likely to be established and these young Syrians are forced to work in sweatshops, factories or vegetable fields instead of being in a classroom and are members of a lost generation who have been robbed of their youth by war.

Although the government can offer greater funding and an overarching policy, it is the NGOs and development organizations that are providing the extra integration support for refugees. SPARK, DAAD, and DAFI are three of the most active organizations in the region. THO spoke with Daphne Mulder, the Scholarship Coordinator for SPARK in Turkey. SPARK not only provides scholarships and prep courses for Syrians, but also focuses on entrepreneurship and career assistance to ensure that once these recipients graduate they have the skills to re-build their homeland.

According to Mulder, the organization works to lobby governments and build capacity at local institutions, implementing Arabic programs at the University of Gaziantep, Harran University, and Mustafa Kemal University. The 2014 IIE report states that “SPARK’s prioritization of local partnerships with Turkish institutions and Syrian civil society groups represents an important best-practice for international organizations operating in Turkey.” These NGOs present a holistic approach to college access initiatives that should be utilized as a blue print for other groups, but this is a group effort and their work should be seen as one piece of this larger puzzle.

The results of a lost generation of Syrian refugees could be disastrous for the global economy and stability of the EU and Middle East regions. According to Elias Bou Saab, Lebanon’s education minister, “Anytime you have children out of school they are…abused, for either child labor, easy recruit[s] for the terrorist organizations like ISIS and Nusra and others. You have child prostitution, you have earlier marriages…even [the] crime rate goes up in the country.” The only way to stop this from happening, to stop an entire generation from losing its economic and social potential, is for the US to recruit and pay for promising Syrian students to go to school in Turkey and the US, alleviating the huge burden that has been placed on Turkey’s shoulders for too long.

Students in US

Keith David Watenpaugh, director of human rights studies at the University of California at Davis, co-author of the IIE report, says there has been a lack of action in the US. Out of over 100,000 college aged refugees, only 150 have been given scholarships to the US.

The US’s higher education community should look to the Institute for International Education and its commitment to refugee educational initiatives for inspiration. IIE established the Scholar Rescue Fund to place professors, researchers, and public intellectuals in universities around the world, allowing them to save their careers and, in essence, their lives. Since establishing the Scholar Rescue Fund, IIE has assisted 643 scholars from 55 countries, including 85 scholars from Syria. This support has totaled over $3,000,000, along with over $2,600,000 in “matching” host financial contributions. They are advocates for needed scholarships, cultural training, and logistical help.

In reality, non-profits and organizations can’t do it on their own. Individual business owners, inventors, and faculty can fill the void in less linear, more experimental ways. Some entrepreneurs in the tech industry are designing new apps that could replace formal education. Google and the US State Department hosted a technology forum at Stanford University for over 100 leading tech experts where they announced a $1.7 million award for the group that created the best app.

But even though a large portion of young refugees have smart phones, most don’t have access to strong Wi-Fi connections nor the money to keep phones functional. More importantly, as Mark Latonero of Foreign Policy explains, “developers of new apps risk failing to understand the unique challenges facing refugee children living without running water, let alone a good mobile network.” Apps cannot replace the in-person interaction that students and teachers experience in the classroom either. A teacher is, according to Latonero, “more likely to note psychosocial needs and to support children’s recovery, or to refer children to other services when they are in greater contact with children.” These applications should be developed and utilized further, but this should not detract from US efforts to get as many displaced Syrians into college classrooms as possible.

Three Reasons Why the US Needs to Act Now

There is a strong moral argument for helping displaced students, but even if we disregard the moral argument, spending more on educational aid for refugees is in line with the US’s domestic and foreign policy goals. There are three main reasons why the US needs to act, and fast.

First, the US holds a clear leadership position with regards to humanitarian aid and higher education. America has resettled more refugees than any other country every year since the end of WWII. Many countries look to the US for guidance when defining what crises are most urgent and which areas to invest in. And although more schools are beginning to offer tuition-free scholarships in the US, these numbers are much lower than other smaller countries or the EU. For example, there were 800 Syrians students enrolled in the US in 2015, compared to 9,000 in Kuwait.

Indeed, in light of the US’s lack of urgency, Eleanor Acer, the senior director for refugee protection at Human Rights First explained, “The United States cannot lead by example unless the administration meets this year’s very modest goal and sets a more meaningful and ambitious goal for next year.” It is clear that the US is not making this as high a priority as it needs to be.

Many Americans are in favor of refugees coming to the US. According to a recent Brookings Institute poll examining Americans attitudes towards refugees in the Middle East, 6 out of 10 Americans support the US taking in refugees and most respondents believe that the US should take in more far than 10, 000 refugees, the number that the Obama administration pledged for 2016. If the US wants to live up to its reputation and change the way the entire international community invests in Syrian’s education, America must prioritize this issue.

Second, US schools have a greater capacity than other countries to set aside funds for refugees. When comparing university endowments, the US boasts 18 of the 20 richest institutions in the world. But according to the Atlantic, when analyzing the 20 richest universities in the U.S. only Emory and Notre Dame make appearances on IIE’s Syria consortium list. And even if universities can’t find the funds in their large endowments to bring refugees across the Atlantic, they can establish programs that allow faculty, students, and staff to sponsor refugees abroad. Top-rated universities such as NYU have established partnerships or study abroad programs with schools in the Middle East. Home institutions could offer to sponsor refugees at these partner schools in Europe or the Middle East without having to pay the visa and transportation fees which would allow Syrians to stay in the region. Bard College has already done this, when in March it announced three full scholarships for Syrian students at its Berlin campus.

Third, it is in the US’s best interest to do so as inaction would lead to a major loss in human capital. The Chronicle of Higher Education argues that US foreign policy that focuses on investment in education in the Middle East “would be more fully transformative — and less costly — than almost any other policy measure the United States could undertake, military or otherwise.” Georgina Brewis, senior lecturer in the history of education at UCL’s Institute of Education, published a report that finds that “history shows that specific programs for refugee students – as part of a wider aid package – can have profound and lasting benefits for both recipients and the host society” and these students have overwhelmingly “given back to society more than they have received in aid.” According to the IIE’s research, “just one Syrian woman has the potential to positively influence at least 1,000 people in her community after she graduates.” Even more, these new students will add a unique and needed form of diversity to American campuses, allowing professors and students to hear firsthand accounts of refugees’ experiences in the war and as asylum seekers.

If the US chooses to ignore this educational emergency is not an option. Who is going to re-build Syria when the conflict ends if there is an entire generation without proper training? A 2015 Brookings Doha policy report found that “Higher education, when properly supported, acts as a catalyst for the recovery of war-torn countries in the Arab world, not only by supplying the skills and knowledge needed to reconstruct shattered economic and physical infrastructure, but also by supporting the restoration of collapsed governance systems and fostering social cohesion.”

The authors go on to explain that education acts as a shield for young men and women, reducing the rates of mental health issues and dissuading them from joining extremist groups. Indeed, Helena Lindholm explains that “a young generation without hopes for social mobility and employment is at risk of exclusion and radicalization.” The US will undoubtedly have to provide overwhelming amounts of humanitarian aid and military assistance to help re-build Syria if we do not assist in the training of Syria’s own brightest. This is a long-term investment that will mitigate the need for full-fledged US intervention in the future.

In the long run, an international system needs to be established that can react to a crisis as soon as it occurs, putting displaced students in university classes as soon as possible. Some suggest a “global consortium of universities with an international funding base that can work closely with governments to sort out visa issues.” This is the time to make a bold call to the international higher education community. As the global leader in humanitarian assistance, the US is in the select position to act as the catalyst for this change.