BEIRUT: A university should be a sanctuary, a place where a young person on the cusp of adulthood has the space, the support and resources needed to be prepared for and contribute to the world.
But for Syrian students, violence at home has violated this space, abruptly forcing them into the next phase of their lives for which they are not ready. “Now I’m stuck. I can’t go back [to Syria] or I’d be arrested, and I can’t continue my research because my funding has been frozen,” says Amer Labania, a Ph.D. candidate from Aleppo at Kingston University in London, where he is studying Syrian tax reform and where he has also taken part in demonstrations against his government’s policies.
He considers himself lucky because he has nearly completed his research and has been able to extend his visa in the United Kingdom, where there are currently 670 Syrian university students, all with their own stories of financial hardship.
Thousands of Syrian students are in crisis as they attempt to finish their studies under the most difficult of circumstances. Those inside the country face daily threats to their lives.
Meanwhile, those studying abroad have nearly all lost the means of funding their education, as their government has cut off scholarships and Western-imposed sanctions prevent families from transferring money from Syria to pay the tuition fees of their children studying abroad.
In addition, some students who protested against their government’s policies fear arrest if they return home.
With no end in sight to the unrest in Syria, academics and activists in Europe and the United States are working to help students finish their education and in some cases leave their country for safer campuses abroad.
In Europe, the Erasmus Mundus program, which offers scholarships for master’s and doctoral programs throughout the continent, has increased its funding for Syrian students in response to the conflict, doubling the number of scholarships since 2011 to 150.
In the U.K., students have mobilized to put pressure on their government and universities to qualify Syrian students for special hardship funding.
And in the U.S., the New York-based Institute of International Education has organized a fundraising campaign and a consortium of 35 universities throughout the world to place Syrian academics, including the Illinois Institute of Technology, which has financed 50 scholarships for Syrian students.
“We’re really concerned that students are losing hope as the conflict drags on,” said Daniela Kaisth, vice president of strategic development for the institute, which was founded after World War I and helped academics fleeing fascism in Europe. More recently they have helped fund the education of Iraqis, Haitians and Libyans.
“These programs help a lot. When they’re able to pay their bills, they’re touched because someone cares.” But she emphasizes that much more money must be raised in order to give Syrian scholars sufficient help. “The Syrian people need to be well-educated and well-prepared to rebuild their country.”
Kaisth said that as the conflict in Syria has continued, “the needs have gotten much more desperate.”
She noted that since the institute launched its portal for funding applications, more than 1,000 students have accessed the website as well as 10 professors in just one month – a similar rate that the organization saw with Iraq at the height of its conflict. “This is a very vulnerable population.”
Compounding Syrians’ financial obstacles in funding their higher education is the issue of paperwork. Many who fled Syria were unable to bring with them academic records, making it difficult to transfer to a foreign university, one of many obstacles Kaisth says she is trying to address.
Christine Gilmore, a Ph.D. candidate at University of Leeds and wife of a Syrian citizen, says she has been trying to address some of the bureaucracy facing Syrian students through a publicity campaign aimed at university administrations and politicians.
“So far we’ve been able to take the concerns of Syrian students directly to the decision-makers and university authorities,” says Gilmore, who notes that as a result of her and her fellow students’ campaigning, the British Council has re-examined the way it administered the special hardship scheme.
“Eligible students on the British Council-administered Capacity Building Scheme were being refused money to help them with essential living expenses, on the grounds that they did not have recent letters on official university letterheads from Syrian universities like Aleppo University which are, in practice, impossible for students to obtain under the present circumstances.” Earlier this month, two large explosions ripped through the campus of Aleppo University, killing 80 people and wounding dozens.
She is also pleased to report that Leeds has stopped sending students threatening letters demanding fee payments and has now set up a special fund to provide them with some financial support, in some cases helping pay off their student debt.
But unfortunately for Husam Helmi, whose academic funding stopped in April, these small victories might be too little, too late.
The Ph.D. student in finance and economics at Brunel University in London received a letter this week from his student union stating that it “may not have the power to solve the difficulties you are facing,” adding that counseling services were available (as they are to all students).
He says that it’s funding – not counseling – he needs in order to finish his studies. “I’ve also got to keep my studies going while we get this bad news from Syria every day,” says Helmi, whose aunt was killed in the unrest and whose family lost its home on the outskirts of Damascus.
Meanwhile, in the U.K., he has moved his wife and young child from a small apartment to a studio.
“Syrian students are the future of a new democratic Syria,” he says. “They will help in rebuilding their country. It is very important for the future of Syria that the best minds finish their studies.”