American Universities Offer Opportunities for Syrian Students, but Resources Are Drying Up

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that since the civil war in Syria began in 2011, 7.6 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes, and more than 4 million have been forced to flee to nearby countries like Turkey and Lebanon, where one in four people is now a Syrian refugee.

[Above: Mirna Alhanash (right) with another Syrian student at a fall welcome picnic at Monmouth College]

The war has led to a breakdown of Syria’s educational system, and American scholars worry about the effect on the country’s future. In a joint report by the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the University of California (UC), Davis, titled We Will Stop Here and Go No Further: Syrian University Students and Scholars in Turkey, the authors caution that if “successive age-cadres of Syrians are unable to continue their education, Syria will lose its future doctors, teachers, engineers, and university professionals.”

There is also concern that in the face of aggressive ISIS recruiting, young refugees will join the extremist group for stability and a reliable income. Authors of the report estimate that between 100,000 and 200,000 Syrian youth have been displaced from higher education.

To help prevent a “lost generation” of college-educated Syrians, IIE developed its Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis and the newly launched 100 Syrian Women fundraising initiative.

Achieving Education and Building Community Amid Conflict
Originally formed in 2012 by IIE, the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), and Jusoor — a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting Syria’s redevelopment — the IIE Syria Consortium includes more than 40 U.S. and European colleges and universities that provide scholarships to students from Syria.

IIE acts as director of the consortium, but students apply directly to member universities and follow their respective application processes. Daniela Kaisth, vice president for external affairs and initiatives at IIE, says 158 scholarships and 89 emergency grants for international students whose funding has been disrupted due to natural disasters or political crises back home have been awarded to Syrian students.

Monmouth College, located in rural Illinois, joined the consortium in 2013.

Mariela Shaker (in cap and gown) with other Syrian students on graduation day
Mariela Shaker (in cap and gown) with other Syrian
students on graduation day

Brenda Tooley, associate dean for academic affairs at Monmouth, says she was inspired by Megan Mozina of IIT during a gathering of Illinois international higher education professionals.

“Megan said, ‘If any of you are able to join this consortium, please do so.’” Tooley says. “And I thought, ‘I can do this — it’s plausible. We can do this at Monmouth.’”

Monmouth’s president at the time, Mauri Ditzler, and other administrators got on board immediately, and in the first year, the college welcomed 10 Syrian students, to whom it awarded two full-tuition scholarships and eight partial-tuition scholarships. Other financial support has come from Top-Up grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Jusoor, and the U.S. Department of State.

Tooley says the students’ presence has had a transformative effect on the college and the community.

“For a small college in a small town in Illinois, the international community is growing, and these Syrian students are hugely involved,” she says.

One student success story Tooley recalls is that of Hind Allouch, a psychology major from Damascus. Tooley says in the beginning, Allouch was shy and uncertain of her English. “But we soon realized that was just a matter of confidence,”  Tooley says. “[Allouch] has become a leader on campus.”

Hind Allouch, a student at Monmouth from Damascus, Syria
Hind Allouch, a student at Monmouth from Damascus, Syria

Allouch was one of the students who started the interfaith Better Together movement at Monmouth. In April, the group held a talk led by a local rabbi, an imam, and a priest about stereotypes and misapprehensions surrounding people of different religious views. Tooley says this exchange was a huge success.

Despite their differences in regard to religion and politics, Allouch says the Syrian students’ relationship with each other is like that of a big family.

“I love them a lot, and I can’t imagine my time at Monmouth without their support,” she said in an email.

Allouch is also an orientation leader and a peer mentor, and she plans to go to graduate school next year to study mental health counseling.

Her friend Mirna Alhanash says she felt welcomed at Monmouth from her first day at the college.

“I was just walking around campus, and I was amazed at how many people smiled at me, waved, and said ‘hi,’” Alhanash said in an email. “I think that having international students … is a great experience for both sides. The local and international students at Monmouth can learn so much from each other.”

Both women have high hopes for the re-development of their home country.

“I hope [that] one day we’ll spread peace in Syria again and rebuild it using science and love,” Alhanash says.

Educate 100 Women, Educate a Nation
Kaisth, at IIE, says the two biggest challenges Syrian students face when trying to enroll in U.S. higher education are securing a student visa and raising funds for tuition.

Criteria for obtaining a visa include academic preparedness, financial capability, and intent to return to their home country — the last of which may be the most daunting, because as Tooley says, “No one in their right mind would go back to Syria right now.”

Increasingly, the only way for Syrian students to secure visas is to cross into Turkey or Lebanon and apply from consulates there, as it is more likely they can return to these countries after graduation.

IIE is not involved with the process of securing a visa but is trying to assist with finding funding, particularly for women.

According to James King, co-author of the IIE-UC Davis report, before the war began, about 26 percent of university-age Syrians were enrolled in postsecondary education in that country. Now, less than 10 percent of the Syrians in this age group are enrolled in Turkish universities — which have seen the highest rate of Syrian enrollment. Of that group, only about 2 percent are women.

“Despite rough gender parity at Syria’s universities prior to the war, Syrian young men are around three times as likely to access higher education in exile,” King said in an email.

Kaisth thinks the main reasons for the decline in women’s enrollment include scarce resources, families choosing to send sons to college to avoid military service, and concerns over women’s safety at school. She says another reason could be the phenomenon of forced marriages for economic survival, which leads to women’s disempowerment within their communities and a loss of economic and professional opportunities.

With the launch of its 100 Syrian Women initiative, IIE and Jusoor seek to raise $5 million from foundations, governments, and philanthropists to award one hundred $50,000 scholarships to college students. IIE is challenging schools to match this amount.

“The goal is to invest in the future leaders of Syria, with a strategic focus on women,” says Kaisth.

The organization says its research shows that just one Syrian woman has the potential to positively influence at least 1,000 people in her community after she graduates.

While expanding its efforts by launching the 100 Syrian Women initiative, Kaisth says IIE has backed off its appeal to grow the consortium.

“We’re really focused now on getting these students through to graduation,” she says. “It’s heartbreaking to bring students here and have to send them back before they graduate [because the money runs out.] … But if a school can possibly bear a full four-year commitment for even one student, then they should definitely join the consortium. As the conflict has dragged on, resources have really dried up.”●

Rebecca Prinster is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. For more information on the IIE Syria Consortium, visit