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Syrian students in Jordan struggle with multiple obstacles to post-secondary education

AMMAN- 4761 Syrians sat for high school final exams (tawjihi) this year, according to the Secretary-General of the Ministry of Education, Sami al-Salaitah, among which hundreds are expected to have passed and thus become qualified to enroll in universities and community colleges.

AMMAN— 4761 Syrians sat for high school final exams (tawjihi) this year, according to the Secretary-General of the Ministry of Education, Sami al-Salaitah, among which hundreds are expected to have passed and thus become qualified to enroll in universities and community colleges. 

Syrian students take the same tawjihi exams as Jordanians, which determine their competitiveness in higher education. However, Syrians who wish to pursue their studies at Jordanian universities have one of two choices: either enroll in the “international program” available at public universities, or apply to private universities.

As students in the “international program”, Syrians pay the highest level of fees for public universities. In addition, the cost of private universities often significantly exceeds those of public universities, depending on the major and reputation of the university. 

The high expense of university poses a major obstacle for Syrian refugees in Jordan and helps explain Syrians’ low enrollment rate in post-secondary institutions in the country. Currently, there are 7,000 Syrians studying in Jordanian universities, according to the Secretary-General of the Association of Arab Universities, Amr Salama. 

Limited seats and majors

Only 22% of Syrians attending Jordanian universities receive scholarships to cover their tuition; either from European organizations (12%) or from other private sources (10%), according to a study by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan.

Some 74% of Syrians attending Jordanian universities shoulder the cost of tuition by themselves or with their families’ assistance.

There are scholarships offered to Syrian refugees in Jordan by different organizations and universities in Jordan and abroad. However, the “number of these [organizations and universities] changes every year, depending on the number of places and funding available,” UNHCR spokeswoman, Layli Karlyle, told Syria Direct

Among the most prestigious scholarships available for refugees is the DAFI scholarship, which is administered by UNHCR and other institutions, and funded by the German government and The Asfari and Said Foundations. It covers all university fees for its recipients, in addition to a stipend to cover personal costs, such as books and transportation. 

Since its establishment in 2007, around 800 students in Jordan have benefited from the DAFI scholarship, according to Karlyle.

The limited number of scholarships could prevent Hazar Rakan, a Syrian refugee living in Jordan, who has applied for the DAFI scholarship, from enrolling in the Languages program at a university in Jordan, even though her final exam score was 91.6%. 

“The idea of paying for my studies at a university by myself is impossible,” Rakan told Syria Direct, citing “the very high cost.” In the case that she does not receive the DAFI scholarship, she “will wait until next year to re-apply for the scholarship.”

Additionally, not all majors desired by Syrian students are available through DAFI. For example, Ahmad Asakra wants to study electronic engineering, but “the DAFI scholarship doesn’t cover engineering majors or even medicine,” he said. 

Thus, he decided to postpone attending a university, in hopes of “getting a scholarship that covers the major” he wants. “Otherwise, I will not enroll in a different major.” 

But apart from the increasing competition for limited seats and majors, Syrian students face other impediments, namely, a lack of awareness about the opportunities available and a lack of ability to benefit from them. 

This was the case of Rakan, who recalls being “lost and scattered” following the announcement of her tawjihi results. “I didn’t have any idea that there were annual scholarships given to refugees until my neighbor told me about the DAFI scholarship.” 

However, simply being aware of the scholarship was not enough. She had to “look for someone fluent in English to apply for the scholarship via the designated application, as most of the information had to be sent in English and [she] was not completely proficient.” 

In addition to that, other students face technical problems in submitting their applications online, as was the case of Basheer al-Kurdi, a Syrian student in Jordan.

In his first attempt to apply for DAFI, he was unable to open the application because of the high number of people applying for the scholarship. “On my second [attempt] I inputted my information [but] then the program stopped working,” al-Kurdi told Syria Direct. Noting that he was still trying to apply, he had hope that “perhaps [he] will be successful [in] one of these attempts.” 

Voluntary initiatives help Syrians

Just as tawjihi results were being released, Israa Sadder, a Syrian DAFI alumnus based in Jordan, shared a post on her Facebook page that she was willing to help any Syrian student who wants to apply for the DAFI scholarship. 

Explaining her motivation, Sadder told Syria Direct that “[it was] the desire to help my community [by using] my experience with DAFI, so that [Syrian Students] could benefit from the scholarship, especially after receiving dozens of messages with questions about how to apply to the scholarship and how to send in the application.”

Sadder noted that she has been asked for advice from many Syrians who don’t know English and thus cannot fill in scholarship applications. “[While] it’s very easy to advertise about a scholarship and attract applications, there has to be more of a focus and priority placed on the means of applying and the extent to which the student is familiar with the scholarship requirements,” she added.

Also, “the application period is short, which presents a major challenge, [especially] as the application to the scholarship [goes offline] most of the time due to increased traffic.”

She emphasized that there needs to be “assistance and guidance available from the scholarship organization to create awareness among students after the results of the final exams are released. There are major questions from students given their different situations and documentation [statuses].”

“The scholarship organization also has to train their employees well in all of its centers in the different governorates so that they can help more students apply for the scholarship over the computer, [in addition] to showing them how to write ‘letters of motivation.’ In that way, everyone can have the opportunity to [understand the scholarship] and develop their skills.” 

Sadder also recommended, in the case that those improvements could not be implemented, that “advising sessions should be held on social media for all students, [in addition to] question and answer sessions.” 

Another group, “Syrians Students at Universities in Jordan,” which started in 2012, provides guidance to “Syrian students in [obtaining] required documents and as well as how to register at universities, and [to what are] the best majors available,” according to the group’s director Samer Adnan.

The group, Adnan said, participates in an annual instruction fair organized by the Jordanian educational initiative “Eye on Future,” which will take place this year after Eid al-Adha, and provides high school graduates, including Syrians, with guidance related to higher education. 

Furthermore, the group also works to provide scholarships to Syrian refugees by “concluding contracts and agreements with donors that allow [them] to advertise their scholarships and follow up with students as they register [for these scholarships],” in addition to seeing if students have problems after getting scholarships. 

The group also helps donors “reach out to students as [it] has a large database,” according to Adnan. 

He emphasized that the available scholarships are not limited to university programs, but also include community college and certified vocational training programs. 

Thus, in addition to the DAFI scholarship, there are “EDU-Syria,” UNESCO and UNICEF scholarships, which provide grants for a variety of majors. Also, Luminus College has 40 scholarships reserved for Syrian refugees in certificate training programs.

With the lack of opportunities and abundance of obstacles confronting Syrian students who want to complete their education at the university-level, it remains important to create awareness among these students as, according to Israa Sidr, “young people need direction to choose their futures.” 

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