When the Syrian war ends, what is the plan for HE?

It was in 2015 that the Mediterranean Universities Union UNIMED – a network of 98 universities from 24 countries – began to address the refugee crisis in the Middle East and North Africa region and to help local higher education institutions with the huge number of refugees in their countries. It was certainly not an easy task, but it was a necessary one.

Refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq

People may think that education is not among the top priorities of people who have lost their homes, their belongings and in some cases their families. This was also our concern, especially after our visit to some of the refugee camps in the region and after reading data and statistics released by international organisations.

When we entered the Domiz 1 Camp, close to Dohuk in Northern Iraq (Kurdistan Region), it was not difficult to imagine the situation on the ground: people were sleeping in barracks, there were no paved roads, there were barefooted children playing football and dust everywhere in a place where 25,000 people were living together. In May 2017 the temperature was around 35 degrees. While we are writing this article, the temperature is reaching 43 degrees.

Nevertheless, we quickly realised that we were wrong. This was particularly clear during a visit to Zarqa University in Jordan when we met more than 200 Syrian students from the camps around the university. They were not asking for more money for food or for housing, but simply to study so they could fulfil their potential.

After six years of crisis we realised that, while lots of problems are still unresolved in terms of services for refugees, young people are fully aware of the risks of becoming an under-educated generation. They were suffering generally, but what they asked for was more scholarships with less restrictive criteria attached to them. They wanted to be consulted about the criteria that would fit their needs.

They also asked for more time to conclude their studies and, at the same time, maintain their families. We noticed that Syrians, especially those coming from rural areas, get married when they are very young (18-19 years old) so when they are enrolled at university they are often married with children.

They seemed to be fully aware that their main problem was not their present situation, but their future. In one way or another the Syrian war will come (or is coming) to an end. When it does they will need to be ready to contribute to the country’s reconstruction.

Certainly, many of them are scared to go back home, for sure many of them would like to remain in Jordan or Lebanon but they are fully aware that there is no future for them in these countries. The situation in Lebanon is very tense and their presence is no longer accepted by hosting communities.

According to Lebanese legislation, they cannot be known as ‘refugees’. They have restricted access to the jobs market and their presence is extremely precarious. They are instead temporarily displaced individuals, which means that, even if they remain in the country for 50 years (as the Palestinians have), the expectation is for them to go back home. The only affordable solution for the government is their safe return to their country of origin in accordance with the norms of international law.

The situation is quite similar in Jordan; while in Iraq (Kurdistan Region) we noticed that they can work and have access to more opportunities. One thing that is common among all the universities we visited is that all of them offer different things to refugees, different activities, different strategies for the future and different conditions for their institutional integration.

Another common problem is related to documentation. Given the troubled background of these students, who have often fled their homes and have been displaced, in addition to the fact that the cities and infrastructure in their country of origin have been destroyed, getting hold of original documents or legalised copies is a major problem.

Several students mentioned that informal agents often offer their services to get them documents. Forgery is also an issue because of the huge black market created by Syrian officials.

New focus on an integrated approach

Up to today, incredible effort has been made to support Syrian refugees both at a humanitarian level and at an education level: from primary school to secondary school and tertiary education.

In relation to the latter, there is, for instance, the HOPES scholarship project funded by MADAD, the SPARK initiative on higher education for Syrian refugees and the DAFI programme for young refugees.

UNIMED is running two projects on the issue of refugee access to academic training: InHERE and RESCUE, the first only for European Union countries, the second working in Jordan, Lebanon and Northern Iraq (Kurdistan Region).

More can be done, not in terms of money but in terms of cooperation among different actors on the ground. We must avoid fragmentation because – as stressed on different occasions by UNIMED Director Marcello Scalisi – “we cannot compete on this issue; we can only cooperate”.

We should listen to the refugees instead of designing scholarships or initiatives without taking into account their real needs. We need to do more research, together with different actors in the region, to produce reliable data and statistics. We should start planning for the day after the war ends and for Syria’s reconstruction, taking education as our starting point and ensuring it is a fundamental human right for youth in the region.

Raniero Chelli is coordinator of European Union projects at UNIMED. He has been working since 1985 on European projects and worked as a Commission Official on the ESPRIT Programme 85-88. Marco Di Donato has been international projects manager of UNIMED since 2015. He also teaches at the University of Trento in Italy where he is professor of history of Islamic countries and Islamic thought. Special thanks go to Bahar Kavala from Istanbul Aydin University, Catalina Paredero from the University of Barcelona and Florian Bauer from Technische Universität Berlin for providing UNIMED with reliable statistics and insights for this article.