Higher education mounts rescue efforts for Syrian students, scholars

As the 18-month conflict in Syria escalates, a growing number of higher education organisations are mounting efforts to extend scholarships and aid to students and academics who are suffering, especially those in the worst-hit areas.

This week, the European Union (EU) and the Institute for International Education (IIE) both pledged support, and efforts are under way to raise more than US$5 million for projects aimed at getting Syrian scholars to safety at campuses around the world.

On Tuesday United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for international action to stop the war in Syria, describing the conflict as “a regional calamity with global ramifications”.

The EU delegation in Damascus announced that its Erasmus Mundus scholarship programme would now extend to Syrian students living in and outside the country, particularly those in vulnerable situations.

The programme is offering three-month to three-year scholarships to Syrian students and academic and administrative staff to work in partner institutions, including the United Kingdom’s Cardiff Metropolitan University and Germany’s Technischen Universität Berlin.

In New York on Tuesday, at the Clinton Global Initiative, the IIE announced a US$5 million initiative to support Syrian students and academics, in collaboration with the Illinois Institute of Technology and the newly established NGO Jusoor, which means 'bridges' in Arabic.

The organisations committed US$2 million, and the IIE Consortium in Support of High Education in Syria is now seeking donors, with the goal of mobilising a total of US$5 million for the one-year project.

The aid basket includes an offer of free virtual college counselling by EducationUSA, a network of more than 400 advising centres worldwide supported by the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The IIE’s Commitment to Action for the coming year – with more provided in subsequent years – includes:
  • • IIE Scholar Rescue Fund fellowships for up to 15 senior, threatened academics from Syria.
  • • IIE Emergency Student Fund grants for up to 100 Syrian students whose education has been interrupted by the crisis.
  • • Scholarships for up to 50 Syrian students to attend the Illinois Institute of Technology.
  • • Building a consortium of universities around the world who will offer scholarships to assist threatened Syrian students, with a goal of 50 new scholarships in the next year.
Organisers explained that the project aims to support Syrian students until it is safe for them to return to their country, and that “it is not meant to be a ‘brain drain’ programme but rather a ‘brain save’ programme”.

Allan E Goodman, president and CEO of the IIE, said: "Syria needs students to continue their university education and scholars to continue their academic work so that, even in the midst of crisis, the country is producing the leadership and knowledge necessary for a successful future.

“With this commitment and with the generosity of additional donors, we will be able to assist Syrian students and scholars whose expertise will be so urgently needed as the country begins to rebuild.”

Daniela Kaisth, IIE’s vice president for strategic development, explained: “We have two key priorities: we are seeking the active involvement of the higher education community, and financial support. We need host campuses and we need money.

“We are looking to colleges and universities around the world to step up and host threatened scholars with fellowship support from IIE's Scholar Rescue Fund, and to join the consortium by agreeing to provide full or partial scholarships.

“It is important that campuses come forward quickly, because the needs in Syria are so immediate. We need donors to provide funding to help IIE provide Emergency Student Fund grants to help students who are already at United States campuses, but are not able to receive funds from home."

As the bloody conflict continues to spiral out of control, almost 300,000 Syrians have already fled the country, with the United Nations warning on Thursday that another 400,000 would follow by the end of the year.

Amid the crisis, students have been killed, including while protesting, and most post-secondary students have not been inside a classroom for more than year, as many institutions have been transformed into prisons or refugee shelters.

“One of the saddest things about the tragedy unfolding in Syria is the impact it is having on Syrian youth,” commented Rania Succar, a founding member of Jusoor.

“For the millions of young people whose hopes, dreams and in many cases safety have been shattered by the situation around them, education is perhaps the most precious gift we can provide.

“This generation has grown up with big dreams for what they hope to accomplish; so many of them will no longer be able to attend school this year. Along with IIE and Illinois Institute of Technology, we are working to find creative and scalable solutions to give hope and purpose back to the young people in Syria,” said Succar.

Earlier this year, Jusoor and the IIE provided education grants to Syrian students at US college and university campuses who faced urgent financial need due to the situation in their country. Last year, the IIE established the Emergency Student Fund for Syria.

Support for the plight of Syrian students has gained momentum as the crisis has worsened.

When Illinois Institute of Technology Vice Provost Gerald Doyle heard about IIE’s Emergency Student Fund for Syria, the institute began to work with Jusoor to launch the Syria Educational and Scholarship outreach initiative to provide immediate opportunities for students from Syria affected by the civil war.

Summing up the tone of all involved organisations, he said: “In this partnership, we set out to create extraordinary educational opportunities for young women and men to further advance the dreams and professional aspirations of these students for their country, their region, and the advancement of global understanding, prosperity, service and peace.”