Want to Save Syrian Refugees? Help Them Go to College.

They’ve survived. Now they need a future.

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In a modified shipping container at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees compound in Jordan last month, four young Syrians, all in their early twenties, sat in front of computers, doggedly entering data for an international organization. Before the war, they had been enrolled in Syrian universities, headed towards bright futures as mechanical engineers and French teachers. Now they live and work at the Zaatari refugee camp, about an hour outside of Amman. It is home to nearly 80,000 Syrian refugees.

In many ways these four are lucky: they have jobs that provide income and structure to their days in a place where almost no one works. They have food and shelter. They are alive. But their frustration on a recent visit was palpable. This was not the life they had imagined for themselves.

Until the country was torn apart by civil war, Syria had a well-functioning higher education system — one of the largest in the Middle East/North Africa region. An estimated 350,000 men and women were enrolled before the conflict began in 2011 — about 25 percent of the country’s young people.

Today the picture is very different. After five years of conflict, entire cohorts have been lost. Some would-be students have died, others have relocated within Syria or fled the country to escape violence. A U.N. report based on interviews with 736 Syrians who arrived in Greece during a single month (February 2016) found that 27 percent were students and that 73 percent of those students had interrupted their education to leave the country. As the war enters its sixth year, higher education is a fast-fading dream for many Syrians.

This is a personal disaster for every single Syrian who expected to graduate from university. But it is also a disaster for the country and for the world. How will Syria ever rebuild and recover without architects to redesign its demolished cities or lawyers to rewrite its constitution?

Syrian refugees face many challenges in trying to pursue their degrees. Some are obvious, and connected to larger issues fundamental to the status of a refugee: language barriers, restrictions on right to travel, lack of funds to pay tuition.

But when asked, the vast majority of young refugees I spoke with pointed to something much simpler that is fundamentally blocking their access to higher education: a lack of documentation. A huge number of Syrians who fled their homes were not able to gather the high school certificates and university transcripts necessary to enroll in almost any form of higher education abroad. This problem is understandable — and apparently almost insurmountable.

In Jordan and Lebanon, countries with large Syrian refugee populations, it is essentially impossible to enroll without documentation. In Turkey, although the Ministry of Education has allowed some students to enroll without proper paperwork, it is unclear whether they will receive a certificate or diploma unless they manage to come up with the necessary documents. This issue persists even for those students who have made their way to Europe. Some students have returned to Syria — at great personal risk — to recover papers that might improve their chances of continuing their education abroad.

Some progress is being made despite these obstacles. In Greece this week, education officials discussed reforming a law that limits foreign enrollment in Greek universities to five percent of the student body. A handful of universities in Jordan have begun to accommodate Syrians living in the Zaatari refugee camp, offering reduced or domestic-level tuition rates after negotiations with the U.N. And an initiative in Turkey at the University of Gaziantep is even more promising. The university’s rector has launched an Arabic-language program in which Syrian students are taught by Syrian academics. The classes take place in the evening and cost about $2,000 a year (Turkish language courses are free). Approximately 800 Syrians are enrolled so far, and the program is slated to expand to several additional public universities in coordination with the Ministry of Education.

Online degree programs — especially “blended-learning” models that include in-person tutoring — would seem to be an ideal solution. In theory they could allow for the relatively quick expansion of education to a displaced population, without putting undue stress on host communities and local institutions. But none of the online offerings are accredited by governments in the region, and local universities do not accept online courses accredited by U.S. or European institutions.

It’s easy to assert the value of learning for the sake of learning, but many Syrians are uninterested in coursework at unaccredited institutions — undoubtedly because they’ve seen first-hand how highly the global higher education system values paperwork. Several Arabic blended-learning programs are ramping up their efforts to earn accreditation to try to make online learning a possibility.

Diplomatic and military efforts failed to prevent the Syrian civil war or to bring it to an end in a timely manner. Before it stopped counting, the U.N. estimated that 250,000 Syrians had been killed; a February report from the Syrian Center for Policy Research put the death toll at nearly 500,000 and rising, despite the current ceasefire. Failing to educate Syria’s young people will magnify these losses, extending the effects of the war long into the future. Denying them the educations they always expected to be theirs, often for want of a few pieces of paper, is an absurd twist to a half decade of tragedy. For Syrians, solutions can’t come soon enough.

In the photo, Syrians gather at the scene of an explosion at Aleppo University on January 15, 2013. Fifteen people were killed and dozens injured in the blast.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

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