On November 16, the No Lost Generation chapter at George Washington University hosted a panel titled “Education for Displaced Syrians: Innovative Solutions to a Complex Challenge”, which was supported by THO.
The panel featured the following speakers:
- Lina Sergie Attar – Co-Founder and CEO, Karam Foundation
- Remi Hassoun – Syrian activist
- Katherine Miller – Global Education in Emergencies Specialist, Institute of International Education (IIE)
- George Batah – Consultant; Co-Founder, Syrian Youth Empowerment (SYE)
The discussion was moderated by Dr. Jessica Anderson, an affiliate of the Institute for the Study of International Migration and an adjunct professor at George Washington University and Georgetown University.
Hope Leone (Co-Executive Director, No Lost Generation GWU) and Audrey Williams (Program Officer, THO) gave opening remarks.
Overwhelming barriers to education
Remi Hassoun, a Syrian activist who left Syria at the beginning of the conflict and first lived in Turkey before coming to the U.S., told the audience about the barriers he has faced when trying to continue his education.
He noted that when he first arrived in Turkey in 2011 at the age of 17, he was in his last year of high school. “Almost I needed two weeks to finish my high school and get [my] diploma, but I didn’t,” he said.
He stated that there were not yet the kinds of opportunities that Syrians in Turkey have now to continue their schooling, such as by attending Turkish public schools or applying for scholarships to Turkish universities. Without a passport, he wasn’t even able to leave the camp where he and his family were living during their first year in Turkey.
Once he was finally able to move to the city, he began working with an American organization “to help Syrian people in the border between Syria and Turkey.” However, he still wanted to finish his secondary education.
Thanks to a program carried out by the Libyan government, he was able to receive his high school diploma.
He was eventually given the opportunity to come to the U.S. “When I came, I was super excited to have a chance to go back to school,” he said. However, since arriving, he has faced numerous challenges when trying to continue his education at the tertiary level.
He must work full time to support himself, and he has been unable to receive enough financial aid to make higher education more affordable. Taking loans out to finance his education is also not a viable solution. At 25, he feels that taking on such a debt and only beginning to pay it back in his 30s would prevent him from starting his life.
He also faces difficulties producing the requirements for university applications. Due to the fact that he must work full time, he is unable to study sufficiently for the TOEFL exam. He also notes that universities require recommendations from his high school, but this is impossible for him to provide.
“How can I get a recommendation from my school if my school is bombed?” he said.
The importance of higher education
Despite the challenges he has faced, Hassoun is adamant that it is essential for Syrians like himself to be able to complete higher education.
“More than millions of people in Syria with no education – that means no country anymore,” he said. He emphasized that students need to continue their education so that they can “rebuild their home” once the conflict in Syria is over.
Like Hassoun, George Batah understands firsthand why higher education opportunities are so important for Syrians. In 2013, Batah – who was studying in Syria – received a joint IIE-Jusoor scholarship to complete his undergraduate studies in the U.S.
Eventually, he and some fellow students decided to help “pay it forward” by enabling other Syrian students to receive scholarships that would allow them to study at institutions in the U.S. This effort resulted in Syrian Youth Empowerment (SYE), a volunteer-based NGO that provides guidance and mentoring to Syrian students as they prepare scholarship applications for U.S. universities.
What Batah has found is that Syrian students who come to the U.S. to continue their education are very likely to begin giving back as soon as they are settled into their studies.
“They work very hard; they study very hard; they get the jobs that they want...and then immediately they start doing things for Syria, whether it’s fundraising, whether it’s...going back to refugee camps, working from here on education, or lobbying,” he told the audience. “And we couldn’t do any of that without the education that we got.”
Batah calls this tendency for Syrian students to give back to their communities a “multiplier effect.”
Katherine Miller, who helps facilitate IIE’s Platform for Education in Emergencies Response (PEER), underlined that even having the prospect of higher education can transform Syrian students’ lives.
“When students have a pathway to higher education, they’re actually more apt to stay in primary and secondary school because they see an avenue toward a larger goal,” she said.
She also emphasized that these students’ “dreams and goals are no different than anyone else’s their age in other places and other countries.” As such, according to Miller, “it makes sense to make sure there are more and more opportunities for these students to access higher education.”
Lina Sergie Attar – who is a Syrian-American from Aleppo – underlined that in addition to increasing access to higher education for Syrian students, it is also important to think about job creation.
According to Attar, these students need to be able to “access dignified work after they’ve finished their higher education.”
Innovative solutions to a complex challenge
For Batah, Attar, and Miller, ensuring that Syrian students have access to higher education means creating innovative programs that can help them overcome the myriad challenges they face.
Batah noted that SYE identifies dedicated students across Syria without regard for whether they are living in opposition-held or regime-held areas in order to help them develop the materials and skills they need to become successful scholarship applicants to U.S. universities.
They also strive to work with disadvantaged students who are less likely to have the opportunity to apply for scholarships without SYE’s help. In order to support these students, SYE offers them customized mentoring from volunteer mentors, who are often Syrian students already studying at U.S. universities. SYE also pays the fees associated with standardized tests like the SAT and TOEFL.
Batah noted that it is especially important for SYE to help the students prepare for portions of their applications that aren’t usually a feature of applications to Syrian universities, such as essays and extracurricular achievement.
With Karam Foundation, Attar and her colleagues work on the ground with Syrian communities in Reyhanli and Istanbul to supplemental the secondary education that Syrian teenagers already receive thanks to the Turkish government’s efforts to ensure that Syrians have access to schooling.
At Karam House in Reyhanli, both Syrian and Turkish students are able to engage in workshops and classes that help them build skills in everything from language learning (such as English and Turkish) to coding and entrepreneurship. They also receive mentorship from young Syrian professionals in their community.
Karam Foundation has found such success with Karam House that they are now seeking to open an additional branch in Istanbul to serve the community there.
In addition to these programs, Karam Foundation also facilitates a “Sponsor a Syrian Refugee Family” program. Many Syrian families in Turkey are unable to send their children to school because of financial constraints. Through this sponsorship program, Karam Foundation provides families with financial support on the condition that they send their children to school.
Attar noted that this kind of program not only can help Syrian children receive an education but also can open up greater opportunities for their parents. She related a story in which one of the mothers receiving financial support thanks to Karam Foundation’s sponsorship was recently able to apply to a Turkish university and is now hoping to become a Karam Scholar in order to continue her higher education.
At IIE PEER, Miller emphasized that she and her colleagues are working to build an “online clearinghouse” made up of both large international organizations and smaller NGOs like Karam Foundation and SYE to facilitate the connections needed to ensure that Syrians are aware of the opportunities available to them to continue their education.
For Miller, it is often small, local NGOs that are doing some of the most impactful work for providing access to education for Syrians. She sees that larger organizations like IIE can play a role as “conveners” that bring together actors seeking to develop innovative approaches to access for displaced students.
The road ahead for education for displaced Syrians
There is still more progress to be made by the international community to prevent a “lost generation” of Syrian youth who were unable to complete their education.
For Hassoun, it is critical for universities to develop a better understanding of the unique and difficult situations that Syrians face. Schools need to be able to make the application process easier for students like himself who lack the documents required to have submit a traditional application.
Batah underlined that many universities are willing to make their application processes more flexible for Syrian students, but there is still no industry-wide standard, meaning that SYE must talk with universities individually to adjust their application processes.
For Attar, it is essential for organizations and actors that wish to develop solutions to this education crisis to ensure that they are listening to Syrian students and their families when they talk about their needs. She noted that many organizations develop programs or products without consulting Syrian families first, which means that their approaches may not actually be a good fit for the needs of the community that they wish to work with.
Miller emphasized that it is time for the international community to see access to education as a humanitarian concern rather than a development concern, which will allow it to be prioritized more than it is currently.
However, Attar, Batah, and Hassoun all underscored the paramount importance of addressing the root cause of the education crisis for displaced Syrians: the ongoing conflict in Syria.
“When we talk about these [education] projects alone, people don’t talk about [the fact] that there’s a war happening every day,” Attar said. “The number one thing that can help Syrians and Syrian refugees is stopping the war.”
Want to learn more about the state of education for Syrians in Turkey? Check out our factsheet below.