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Sowing the Seeds of Syria’s Future

LONDON – We are at risk of producing a lost generation of young Syrians. Nearly six years of civil war have displaced them from their homes, denied them the chance to plan for their future, and stolen their hopes. And in hopelessness, as we now know all too well, lie the roots of future violence in the Middle East.

The end of Syria’s brutal war may seem far off. But we must not behave as if peace will never come, because, when it does, Syria will have to call upon its best and brightest – the generation at risk of being lost – to rebuild their country.

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Today, almost all of those young people have been denied training in the skills they will need in the future. If there is to be any hope for meaningful reconstruction, it will have to be built on the bedrock of a higher education.

We must, of course, be realistic and acknowledge the obstacles in the way of delivering higher education to refugees outside their country. There are language barriers. Academic credentials must be documented or verified in some way. And significant new funding will be necessary (with just 1.3% of global humanitarian aid directed toward education, such funding will be hard to come by).

Notwithstanding these challenges, there is one significant step we can and should take immediately: the creation of an international clearinghouse dedicated to providing access to higher education. The existing, if limited, resources available to refugees must be brought together in one place, providing comprehensive information for Syrians seeking to begin or resume their studies.

Many important initiatives are already underway. Turkey recently unveiled plans to open three institutions tasked with offering higher education to Syrian refugees. In Lebanon and Jordan, a European Union-funded program is providing 3,000 young Syrian adults with the skills necessary for higher education. And a coalition of Canadian higher education institutions and providers has joined with the World University Service of Canada to increase financial support for refugees.

With the support of Jusoor, an organization led by Syrian expatriates, the Institute for International Education has created the Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis, a consortium of colleges and universities providing scholarships for Syrian students whose education has been disrupted by the conflict. The institute also provides educational opportunities to Syrians through its Emergency Student Fund, which issues grants to ensure that students from Syria can continue their studies in the United States.

At the grassroots level, individual donors such as George Soros have been generous in their support. Moreover, universities have offered scholarships, and organizations like the Dutch NGO Spark are reaching out to Syrian refugees still in the region to provide opportunities for higher education. The Scholar Rescue Fund offers fellowships to academics to continue their work in safety outside of Syria.

Meanwhile, digital advances are helping to close the gap between refugees and a university education. The University of the People is an accredited US university dedicated to providing a quality, traditional college education online at no cost (except for a small fee for processing exams) to students with no other accessible alternatives. It has created a scholarship program to cover the cost of the examination fees for 500 refugees, with the goal of serving 12,000 in the future.

To make these chances available to more young people, we need a clearinghouse linking refugees in need with universities and organizations in a position to help them. John Sexton, President Emeritus of New York University, is dedicating himself to creating such a clearinghouse; and, under his guidance, the newly formed Catalyst Trust has provided seed funding.

The reasons to support this effort are manifold. Jorge Sampaio, a former president of Portugal, has spearheaded the Global Platform for Syrian Students, connecting universities offering scholarships with refugees (through his effort, some 150 students have resumed their studies). Sampaio says that a clearinghouse could increase awareness and mitigate the risks faced by refugee students, with dramatic positive effects.

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By the time the World Humanitarian Summit takes place in Istanbul in May, we must establish a funding facility for education in emergencies. In addition to ensuring that conflict does not disrupt the education process, such a fund could provide ongoing support to the global clearinghouse – perhaps even providing financial aid to talented young people.

We cannot wait for the war to end to pick up the pieces and rebuild – not when there is work that can be done today. By removing barriers to information we will provide refugees with the opportunity to continue their studies. And, as hope takes root among Syria’s lost generation, they will lay the groundwork for the reconstruction and revival of their country.