Go/refuge: The Syrian Academic Emergency

By Guest Contributor

In the midst of a refugee crisis, driven in large part by turmoil and civil war in Syria, the provision of safety, food and shelter for displaced persons is a priority for conscientious segments of the international community.  And rightfully so.

Communities around the world are eager to lend a hand to refugees seeking basic human necessities.  Our generosity and goodwill often stops here.  Higher education, jobs and financial stability are widely perceived as luxuries that refugees must earn for themselves, a daunting task considering language barriers and restrictions on refugee employment in certain countries.

As media fervor and viral Internet attention remain directed at desperate refugees risking their lives to reach Europe, a second crisis is unfolding, one with potentially more long-lasting effects. Civil war and displacement have deprived an entire generation of Syrians of a higher education. The Institute of International Education (IIE) estimates that, out of more than four million Syrian refugees in the Middle East and North Africa, about 450,000 are between 18 and 22 years old.  90,000 to 110,000 of these individuals are qualified for university.

The future of the Syrian refugee population may lie with its integration into host countries and societies or it may involve its return to a post-war Syria for the purpose of rebuilding.  In either case, educated segments of the refugee population will play a key role, as these embody a set of skills critical to the growth of any society and economy.  So even as nations and NGOs seek to provide refugees with safety and sustenance, higher education opportunities must be made available to ensure their future success. If Syria’s “lost generation” remains uneducated, refugees may prove to be burdens on their host countries.  Should circumstances in Syria prohibit refugees from returning home soon, a future postwar Syria will face the challenge of a weakened college-educated population in addition to the mandate of nation rebuilding and infrastructural development.

To increase the number of educated Syrian refugees, the obstacles to higher education, predominantly financial, must be addressed.  Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey all face financial and administrative challenges to continuing their education, hindering their academic and human potential.  A report published in October 2014 by the IIE and University of California, Davis found that, in Turkey, as few as two percent of the Syrian university-age population was actually enrolled in Turkish universities.

Given the nature of this situation, Middlebury College as an academic institution is especially poised to make a difference.  With that in mind, I urge every member of our college community to take part in an initiative called Go/Refuge and sign our petition urging the administration to fund the college education of a few Syrian refugees.

The feasibility of such a program is already in the process of being proven.  IIE has termed the volatile situation in Syria and the accompanying refugee situation an “academic emergency” and has called for academic institutions to join its Syria Consortium and commit to providing scholarships for Syrian students.  Members of the consortium, more than 35 institutions from around the world, include


· American University School of International Service

· Bard College

· Boston University

· Brown University Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology

· Bryn Mawr College

· Dartmouth College

· Emory University James T. Laney Graduate School

· Illinois Institute of Technology

· Notre Dame School of Law

· Pitzer College

· Tufts University

· University of Colorado, Colorado Springs


The financial support of refugees is also well within the means of Middlebury College.  In fact, Bryn Mawr College, with an endowment of $854 million compared to Middlebury’s $1.08 billion, has already listed a scholarship through the IIE Syria Consortium for applicants entering in Fall 2016.  Should Middlebury College follow suit, its actions will not simply be a symbolic gesture.  Rather, these will stand as practical advances on an issue of growing global urgency.

Shaheen Bharwani ’19 is from Belmont, MA.

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