Michael Pizzi

Syrians see the limits of an education in refuge

There is almost no avenue to higher education for Syrian refugee youths, raising fears of a lost generation

MAFRAQ, Jordan — One morning last year, Alaa, 17, boarded a bus out of the Zaatari Syrian refugee camp to a nearby school to take the tawjihi, the grueling, end-of-high-school examination that is a rite of passage for teenagers in Jordan. Passing the test, which ostensibly opens the door to Jordanian universities, was the best way to keep her life on track while waiting out Syria’s war in the dusty tent city that is Zaatari — or so Alaa was told. Every day for several months, she studied — in her overcrowded classroom, at a tawjihi prep center and at night in her family’s trailer, until darkness fell and reading became impossible.

She aced the test, against steep odds; only 2 percent of her peers in camp passed. But Alaa wondered what success has done for her. “After the tawjihi, what’s next?” she asked. Paying the steep foreigner-rate tuition at a Jordanian university is out of the question for her parents, who, like many of the other 1 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, are depleted of savings, and scholarship opportunities are extremely rare. The United Nations typically tries to guarantee education through age 17. After that, refugees are on their own. “All the students who passed are still sitting in their tents, doing nothing,” she pointed out. “So what difference did my score make?”

As Syria’s war drags into its fifth year, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees are faced with the very real prospect of whiling away the prime of their lives in exile as their futures hang in the balance. In Jordan high dropout rates among Syrian teens, coupled with discouragingly low passing rates for those who make it to the tawjihi, raise fears that a generation of refugees could fail to earn the equivalent of a high school education. Moreover, the few who pass the test, like Alaa, don’t know what to do with their schooling. Except for a few dozen scholarship opportunities mostly in the Middle East and Europe, there is almost no avenue to higher education for even the most motivated youths.

Though poverty and the need to work are also factors, education advocates say the absence of a real incentive to finish high school urgently needs to be addressed. Failing to do so could have devastating consequences not just for these individuals but also for Syria’s future, said Naserddine Touaibia, a Zaatari camp official. “This generation is the one that will go back to Syria and rebuild,” he said. “If we don’t invest in [these refugees] right now, we risk having not only a lost generation but a lost Syria as well.”

Demand for higher education among Syrian refugees has only recently come to the fore. During the initial emergency phase of the Syrian refugee response — when food and shelter were the priority — the basic primary and secondary schooling offered by the U.N. was enough to hold children over, since many Syrians expected the conflict to peter out in a matter of months. “People had in mind a Libya scenario — three, four, five months at most — and then they’d be back in Syria,” said Touaibia. “They thought, What was the point of engaging with school?”

An Etilaf program textbook in Amman.
Michael Pizzi

With no end in sight for the conflict, a growing number of Syrian refugees realize they can no longer put their education on hold. But the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against them, and not only for those like Alaa who are living in refugee camps with scant electricity and few material resources. The tawjihi has proved an insurmountable hurdle to many Syrians across the country, in part because it includes terminology and subject matter that aren’t taught in Syria, such as Jordanian history and English. This puts them at a distinct disadvantage, explained Ali al-Fakhori, who directs the Amman branch of an alternate high school degree program for refugees in Jordan run by the Syrian rebels’ political body, the Syrian National Coalition (Etilaf, its acronym in Arabic).

About 400 Syrian refugees in Jordan have opted to pursue the Etilaf degree, in large part because it offers a version of the tawjihi that more closely resembles the baccalaureate in Syria and therefore has a much higher passing rate among refugees: over 60 percent. Fakhori said that the budget and facilities at his center — a row of chipped-paint classrooms on the second floor of a Jordanian elementary school — are modest but that it offers Syrians a realistic chance at success. It also fills an important gap by welcoming a wider range of students, like Maher Ghalyoun, 18, who fled Syria three years ago to escape the war and dodge military service. By the time he resumed schooling in Jordan, he was told he was too old to start his year of tawjihi prep in public schools, so Etilaf was his only option.

Relief organizations acknowledge situations like Ghalyoun’s but worry that the dueling programs are only complicating matters for young Syrians. Fakhori admits he is aware of universities in only two countries — Turkey and Qatar — that recognize the Etilaf diploma, which raises questions about how useful it will prove. “God willing, the Syrian crisis will be over soon and then the Etilaf will have greater recognition,” he said, assuming, like many anti-regime Syrians, that President Bashar al-Assad will inevitably fall. But what if the war ends with Assad still in power? Sohrab Baghri, the education manager in Jordan for Relief International, which recently opened tawjihi prep centers for Syrians across Jordan, asked, “Will the Etilaf diploma be a mark against you?”

Students at Jordan University in the capital.
Michael Pizzi

Part of the reason accessing higher education has been such a maze, education experts say, is that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has never had to handle a refugee crisis from a middle-income country like Syria, where university education is typically free and about 93 percent of children attended school before the war. There is little room in the agency’s tight budget for anything more than the rudimentary skill-building and literacy programs it has provided in past crises, mainly in Africa. And considering that just this week, the World Food Programme announced it would have to cut food rations to Syrian refugees in Lebanon because of inadequate funding, apportioning money to something as costly as higher education seems implausible.

Many argue that more funding from abroad is the only answer. Others say Jordanian universities should subsidize tuition for Syrians, who, like other foreign students, often pay nearly double Jordanians’ rate. In either case, the first step is to map the demand, said Eddie Dutton, the project officer for UNESCO’s education in emergencies program in Amman, which recently launched a surveying initiative, Jami3ti — based on the Arabic for “my university.” “Right now, we can determine who’s between the ages of 16 and 30 and their previous education history, but what we don’t know is what their future learning needs are,” he said. “If we have a realistic view of the demand, then we can use that to advocate” with the government, international community and other potential funders.

Education advocates underline that there is an urgency to these efforts, saying disaffected Syrian youths may be vulnerable to extremism — such as that roiling their country in the form of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — or more likely to stoke tensions in strained host societies, like Jordan. “Knowing that there is something they can look forward to in the future, that not all is lost — that’s really important,” Dutton said.

But for those with a high school diploma already in hand, there is at least a glimmer of hope. The U.N.’s DAFI program, which provides scholarships to refugees worldwide, and the governments of Canada and Sweden have introduced programs to place Syrians at universities in Jordan or abroad for free, with some even offering paths to citizenship. These scholarships tend to go to Syrians who completed the baccalaureate at home or who had their university education disrupted, and they are just a drop in the bucket for Syria’s still-expanding refugee crisis. But they have already changed a few lives.

Aya and Ghofran, who asked to be referred to by only their first names, called it a “miracle” that they were among the 50 Syrian refugees chosen for the DAFI scholarship last year, out of thousands who applied. Perched on a leafy terrace on the campus of Jordan University, where both enrolled last year, Aya, a gregarious 21-year-old, said she so desperately wanted to resume her studies that she used to tell her parents she would even return to Syria, if needed. “I didn’t want to lose the third year of my life without doing anything,” she said. Now that she is on track for a civil engineering degree (she says she wants to — literally — rebuild Syria one day) and Ghofran is studying for a degree in pharmacy, the outlook has changed.

“The last year was the best year of my life,” said Ghofran. “Everything is in order. Life is beautiful.”

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