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Hope springs eternal

In the second of two articles on science and diplomacy, Eleni Courea considers whether help is best provided to refugees in neighbouring countries or in Europe.

“My name is Feras Ouyoun and I am from Syria.” The voice crackles on the long-distance telephone line. “I left Damascus in 2010 to study pharmacy in Beirut, just before the war broke out. Now I can’t go back.”

Across Europe and the Middle East, refugees like Ouyoun have fled catastrophic conditions to find themselves relying on the help of fellow academics. Ouyoun’s studies in Lebanon are supported by an EU-funded project called Higher and Further Education Opportunities and Perspectives for Syrians (Hopes). The programme covers Ouyoun’s costs for one year as he completes his masters degree in clinical pharmacy.

Headquartered in Amman, Jordan, Hopes funds higher education for Syrian refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. “Hopes is often misunderstood as a simple scholarship programme,” says Carsten Walbiner, its director. “But we offer a lot more.” As well as scholarships for about 400 degrees, Hopes supports students pursuing vocational diplomas and offers counselling services and intensive English-language courses.

The breadth of activities reflects the challenges that refugees face when studying abroad. They must get to grips with English and tedious application procedures, Walbiner says, for which guidance and counselling services are essential. “We try to give information about all available opportunities beyond our own.”

To do this, Hopes navigates regulations across many countries. It has struck agreements with the Turkish government and with Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq, and with the Lebanese University in Beirut. In Jordan, Hopes is subject to a rule whereby international organisations must spend 33 per cent of their funds on helping locals. So, for every 10 scholarships awarded to Syrian refugees in Jordan, three or four go to Jordanian citizens.

Such policies are important to combat the perception that refugees are privileged compared with citizens. Turkey is home to nearly 3 million Syrian refugees, Jordan has 650,000 and Egypt has 120,000. Lebanon hosts the most of any country per capita, counting more than 1m in its population of 5.8m. 

“Being in Lebanon is becoming more difficult because I’m not allowed to work,” says Ouyoun. The Lebanese government bars refugees from formal employment for fear that they will take jobs away from locals. Because of this, “we need to create spaces for refugees to do something useful and support their families,” says Walbiner, and higher education is one way to do that.

But Walbiner is sceptical of refugee scholarship programmes in Europe: “We have to manage expectations. European universities are very demanding and the risk of failure is enormous.” The problem is compounded by language and cultural barriers, as well as the costs—it’s much cheaper to fund scholarships in the Middle East.

Equally, Walbiner says, it is important to provide incentives for young people to stay in Syria once the country is ready for reconstruction. Before the crisis began in 2011, more than 660,000 Syrians were enrolled in higher education. Now, more than 3m pupils and students at all levels have stopped attending classes. Walbiner knows of students who were “forced to emigrate to Jordan primarily because of the availability of scholarships there, and not the political situation at home”.

Nevertheless, the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, has launched a pilot initiative. Since 2015, it has hosted six refugees from sub-Saharan Africa. Rather than enrolling them in degree programmes, it delivers Italian language courses, offers preparation for vocational traineeships and organises cultural tours of Tuscany.

“I don’t know of any other university in Europe that has literally opened its doors to refugees. They live with us and participate in all social activities,” says Caterina Guidi, the EUI refugee initiative’s coordinator. While cultural integration programmes and degree courses are “not mutually exclusive”, the EUI model can be more easily emulated by other EU universities, she says.

The bottom line, according to Hani Harb, who founded the German-Syrian Research Society, is that we must listen to the refugees. “Many Syrians who have sought asylum in Germany to continue their education are being pushed by the government towards vocational training,” he says. This may be suitable for those with no formal education, Harb argues, but Europe must give those who want to go to university a chance.

Ouyoun is unfazed by the daunting prospect of studying abroad. “I want to do a PhD in Europe, Australia or North America,” he says, because the teaching quality is low at the few Lebanese universities with doctoral programmes. “And when the war ends, I will return to Syria immediately. I want to go back home and teach pharmacy at Damascus University. That is my dream.”

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This article also appeared in Research Europe