The Syrian Refugee Crisis and Higher Education: A View from Turkey

“Thank God we’re alive, but we are dying an intellectual death.”

Wearing a colorful headscarf and a seemingly permanent look of sorrow, an intense and charismatic professor I’ll call Noora shared with me her tragic story of fleeing Syria and becoming a refugee. I was in Reyhanlı, a dusty border town in Turkey’s southernmost province, to meet with Syrians whose university education and academic work had been interrupted indefinitely due to the conflict in their homeland. Among the more than three million Syrian refugees, including an estimated one million in Turkey, there are tens of thousands of university students and professors.

Noora hadn’t been able to find work in Turkey, and she wasn’t optimistic. Her academic colleagues in the room nodded in collective agreement. Without their students, lecterns, and research labs, they were “like fish out of the water,” one explained.

And like so many other Syrian refugees, they had suffered intense trauma. Noora confidently held up her hands, revealing three deformed fingers. An amateur pianist, she had been tortured in a Syrian prison and could no longer play. “My hands are a symbol,” she told me.

My visit to Reyhanlı was part of the third phase of a larger IIE–University of California, Davis, research project to study the conditions and educational needs of Syrian university students and scholars in Jordan (report accessible here), Lebanon, and Turkey (report forthcoming). Over a three week period in June and July, my colleagues and I met with dozens of Syrian students and academics in Ankara, Istanbul, Gaziantep, Antakya, and Reyhanlı, as well as with Turkish government officials and university administrators.

Syrians face significant barriers to higher education in Turkey. These stem from linguistic challenges, foreign student quotas, and limited access to accurate and up-to-date information, among other factors. There is, however, reason for optimism, as Syrian enrollment at Turkish universities have increased dramatically over the past year (to be detailed in the forthcoming report). The government of Turkey has demonstrated a commitment to expanding Syrians’ educational opportunities, and while this support risks becoming politicized, the country’s large size, robust economy, and relatively stable political situation presents a favorable situation in comparison with Lebanon or Jordan, for example.

There are important opportunities for the international community—governments, NGOs, donors, and academic institutions—to work with Turkish partners to support Syrians to continue their university education and academic work in Turkey. This can be achieved through existing initiatives, such as the IIE Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis, IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund, the Global Platform for Syrian Students, or various European governments’ scholarship programs, just to name a few. There is also a need to develop new partnerships and programs that can build the capacity of Turkey’s higher education institutions to absorb more Syrians.

The forthcoming report will present our research findings and recommendations in detail. Here, I would like to describe two meetings that exemplify my own feelings from our visit to Turkey.

The first is the aforementioned Reyhanlı meeting with Syrian academics.

These scholars, all accomplished leaders in their respective fields, were languishing and unable to envision their futures. They had applied unsuccessfully to dozens of positions in Turkey, the Gulf, and internationally. In shock from their forced transition from stable and meaningful work to unemployment and inactivity, they expressed desperation and frustration at the lack of support they were receiving. They asked about the possibility of establishing an Arabic university in Turkey. They requested support for English-language training. They inquired about fellowships to work abroad. Although they were prepared to take the steps necessary to continue their academic work, they simply lacked any options.

At present, Turkish universities are largely inaccessible to most Syrian academics, particularly those lacking strong English. I fear that without international support, talented scholars like Noora will continue to languish indefinitely, their intellect and leadership potential another casualty of the Syrian conflict.

The second meeting took place in Gaziantep, a medium-sized city in southern Turkey that hosts more than 200,000 Syrian refugees. It has become a hub of Syrian activity and Turkish support for the refugee population. We sat around a table with a group of talented and ambitious university students, all of whom had been forced to flee Syria in the midst of their studies.

There was Ayman, a computer engineering major who broke down when describing the de-humanizing process of trying to renew his passport at the Syrian Consulate in Istanbul. With admission offers from several universities in the United Kingdom and United States, Ayman needed both a scholarship and a new passport to enroll. He pleaded with us, “Everyone knows about Syria, but only through the newspapers. They don’t know our individual stories.”

Muhammad had successfully enrolled in a Master’s program at one of Turkey’s private universities, and he had been informally advising his friends on applying in Turkey. As a result, we asked him to identify the programs he felt were most needed to help Syrians access Turkish universities. Unsatisfied with his response during the meeting, Muhammad subsequently wrote to me to delineate in great detail his vision for an academic resource center for Syrians.

And there was Rasha, a young woman who had studied biotechnology engineering in Syria. Despite her strong academic background and near-fluent English, the chair of a local university department had informed her that he was reluctant to accept Arab students due to a negative experience with Iraqis. Rasha begged him for a chance, and after a semester-long testing period in which she audited courses, she ultimately received conditional acceptance and was preparing to take the TOEFL and required Turkish exams to enroll.

Ayman, Muhammad, and Rasha all demonstrate remarkable resilience, creativity, and ability in their struggle to continue their studies. If these young people represent Syria’s future (or that of an exiled Syrian community in Turkey or elsewhere), then we must conclude that this future could be very bright. To make it a reality, however, they urgently need support. Even several of these outstanding students had been unable to access educational opportunities, despite their impressive academics and English language abilities.

As I met Syrian students and scholars across Turkey, each with his or her own harrowing story, I reflected on how I might have reacted facing similar circumstances. What if, as a sophomore in college, I was suddenly displaced from the United States to Mexico due to war, compelled to navigate utterly unfamiliar systems to re-start my education? How would I have coped with the trauma of war and displacement? Would I have recovered from the humiliation of going from an empowered member of society to invisibility? How would I have endured rejection after rejection, often for reasons I did not understand? How long before I would have abandoned my educational dreams, instead succumbing to bitterness or boredom and depression?

In many ways, this is the story of refugees everywhere. But Syrians like Noora and Ayman have not given up. They are determined, strong, and talented. And right now, they are also vulnerable. We simply cannot afford to let these future leaders of Syria fall through the cracks. With this, the greatest educational crisis in the world today, the stakes are too high.

IIE will publish a report on Turkey later this summer. It will launch the regional study in the winter of 2014, with the key findings and recommendations released at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting in New York in September 2014. For more information, please contact Senior Program and Research Officer, James R. King, at