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New program to help Syrian students close to home

A new program to help get Syrian refugees back to school will fund scholarships and other higher education projects in five countries surrounding Syria, the European Commission announced at a press conference in Brussels last week. The €12 million program, called HOPES (for “Higher and Further Education Opportunities and Perspectives for Syrians”), aims to help displaced students who do not want to or cannot leave the region to continue their education in neighboring countries. The goal is to avoid a “lost generation” of young Syrians, said Dorothea Rüland, secretary general of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in Bonn—the group leading the program—at the press conference. DAAD is working in partnership with three other European education nonprofit organizations to administer the program. “If we look at Syria before the crisis, more than 20% of the population between 18 and 30 years old studied at universities; today, less than 5% [do],” she added.  

In 2010, before the crisis began, about a third of Syrian students were studying science and engineering, according to data from the Syrian Central Bureau of Statistics. The new program is not specifically targeting students in these disciplines, but they could still benefit, particularly from two key parts of the mandate: scholarships and English proficiency training. For example, in Syria’s higher education system, coursework in engineering, medicine, and other science subjects is conducted only in Arabic, which leaves these students at a disadvantage in their host countries, where science courses are likely to be taught in English and other languages. English language training could help some of these students get back to their studies. 

HOPES plans to award at least 300 full scholarships—and up to 500 if lower tuition fees can be negotiated—most likely to Syrian refugees whose bachelor’s studies were interrupted, and financial support or counseling of some kind to several thousand more people. They plan to work with The United Nations refugee agency, which recently offered 1000 scholarships to refugees in Turkey, to find applicants most in need.

HOPES will also offer up to €60,000 for locally driven short-term projects in each host country (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey). Projects might include short courses for credit; local studies to find out why women are not going to school; or developing standardized tests to evaluate students’ competence in a field, as documentation of previous academic work in Syria might be unavailable.

“I like that this program offers scholarships,” says Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of geography at Indiana University, Bloomington. “But 300 is a very small number, given that there are 4.5 million Syrian refugees.” She also notes that educational support must be linked to training and employment opportunities. Employment is “the most important issue in aid to displaced people,” she says.

The HOPES organizers chose to adopt a local approach (as compared to efforts to help refugees further afield) because even as E.U. countries limit immigration and entry of asylum seekers, cultural barriers to travel also exist. Syrian families may not wish to allow young women to travel alone, for example, and their male counterparts may be expected to stay to support their families, said DAAD’s Carsten Walbiner, director of HOPES and head of the organization’s office in Amman, in a telephone interview with Science Careers.

DAAD and the three other organizations involved—the British Council, Campus France, and the Dutch group EP-Nuffic—already have a presence in each host country. Their past experiences and local offices will help HOPES hit the ground running and allow the program to customize its responses to the various challenges arising from each country’s different culture and infrastructure, Walbiner noted. Furthermore, HOPES will work with local institutions because, Rüland underscored at the press conference, “it is of paramount importance to create acceptance [for displaced Syrians] in the host communities.”

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