LONDON – In Aleppo, the devastated Syrian city and former rebel stronghold that has now been retaken by Syrian government forces, there was a glimmer of hope even as the bombs were falling. Amid the ruins, learning endured, as 15 young Syrians prepared for their university exams. They could not walk to a college campus, because so many of the country’s universities have been reduced to rubble. But they could still earn their degrees, thanks to a unique online program made available by the University of the People (UoPeople).
Every week, the Syrian students participate in online courses alongside pupils and instructors from around the world. Through these virtual classrooms, they pursue their chosen degree in business administration, computer science, or health science. The courses are so well prepared that many of these highly motivated students will be invited to attend Western universities later in their studies.
The UoPeople’s program has been a rapid success. Its enrollees currently include 500 Syrians – half of whom are still holed up in their war-torn homeland, while the other half are refugees – and 6,000 other students, from almost 200 countries. The UoPeople’s inventive model was developed by the education entrepreneur Shai Reshef, and has been endorsed by some of the world’s most renowned academics.
The model’s benefits extend far beyond quantifiable metrics such as enrollment numbers or matriculation figures. The UoPeople provides an invaluable good: hope for the future, and the means to prepare for it. This is not something that can be airdropped or delivered by a humanitarian convoy. Education is a basic human right, and in regions riven by chaos, it can nurture a sense of normalcy for the many, not just the few.
In two months, on March 1, displaced and refugee students will receive even more help, with the launch of the Platform for Education in Emergencies Response, a new online service that connects college-ready students with higher-education institutions and sponsorship opportunities around the world. PEER, which is partly funded by former New York University President John Sexton’s education charity, Catalyst, will be administered by the Institute of International Education (IIE).
With this new service, refugee students can post their CVs online for university admissions offices to peruse, and the universities themselves can list all of their academic and cultural offerings and terms. This will help match the right students with the right schools, and the IIE will also provide a tutoring and counseling service – online and offline – for students seeking opportunities to study abroad.
We already know that, on average, refugees spend at least ten years away from their home country. If they are deprived of an education during that time, they will have few employment opportunities in the future. Not providing an education for displaced people has been one of our humanitarian-aid system’s biggest failures. We have focused only on the short term – the first few weeks of people’s displacement, when supplying food and shelter are paramount – and not on the big picture. But, thanks to inspired leadership by former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres – who will now be the UN’s ninth Secretary-General – and current Commissioner Filippo Grandi, the UN Refugee Agency is now making education a high priority.
Syria once had the highest-quality universities in the region; now, a half-million students who would have attended them cannot do so because of the civil war. But with support from global-governance institutions and programs administered by nongovernmental organizations such as the UoPeople and the IIE, those displaced youths could now gain an education lifeline.
Many of them have been bunkered down in Aleppo, which has just been evacuated. But that does not mean that they are safe. Whether they end up in Idlib province or somewhere else, they will still be threatened by Syrian government bombs. As their nightmare continues, we must at least provide them with the education and training they will need for the future.
When the day comes that Syrians can finally begin to rebuild their country, they will need qualified people. That is why philanthropists in the United Arab Emirates, and across the Middle East, are supporting the invaluable, ongoing education initiatives described here, as well as establishing scholarship funds to provide more help from within the region.
When I recently met a 14-year-old refugee in Beirut who yearned to go to school, I asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. He replied that he wanted to be an engineer. That is not a particularly popular profession among today’s youth, so I asked him why. “I want to rebuild Syria,” he said. With the help of initiatives like the UoPeople and PEER, thousands of young Syrians will someday be able to play their part in their country’s reconstruction as well.