In Conflict and Crisis, Higher Education Matters

You probably have never heard of the Global Platform for Syrian Students. I hadn’t heard of them either until about two years ago when the President of Carnegie Corporation of New York, Dr. Vartan Gregorian, introduced us.

I had just finished briefing him about IIE’s Syria Consortium, which is a group of about 30 universities led by Illinois Institute of Technology that offer scholarships for Syrian students displaced from higher education due to the conflict. He not only connected us with the Global Platform, a Portugal-based initiative securing scholarships for Syrian students in Europe, but also gave a grant that enabled us to help more students and conduct original research on urgent needs in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.

The Global Platform is the brainchild of Portugal’s former President, Jorge Sampaio. Recalling the Jewish children taken in by Portuguese families and provided schooling during World War II, he turned his attention to Syrian students as the latest victims of conflict and strife.

About a month ago in Brussels, the Global Platform did something equally remarkable: it gathered, for the first time, representatives of NGOs, multilateral agencies, governments, and universities for a two-day expert seminar on “Higher Education in Emergencies.” IIE co-organized the conference, along with the Arab League, British Council, and Council of Europe, which also provided financial support.

We heard from many participants about the different aspects of this problem, mostly seen through the lens of the Syrian crisis: UNHCR explained the difficulties of refugee education, when only 2 percent of humanitarian aid is designated to higher education; the Foreign Ministry of Germany discussed the great need for more scholarships, more flexible documentation, and perhaps even a special visa category for displaced students; and representatives from the Middle East region noted that the really big problem is access to higher education in the countries hosting Syrian refugees, including Iraq, which now has many internally displaced people of its own.

But the conference was not just about problems. In a special session called “Outside the Box,” we were encouraged to think of ways we might “do more, better, faster” to protect students and scholars during conflict and emergencies. How about a coalition just on this topic? What about large-scale, coordinated programs to help the 250,000 or so displaced and refugee Syrian students between the ages of 18 to 23? How can we learn from current innovative efforts to provide access through accredited on-line learning, such as those being pioneered by UNHCR in coordination with organizations such as the Jesuit Commons for Higher Education in the Margins?

We also heard from Maryam, who was able to complete her Master’s in Portugal with support from the Global Platform last year. She spoke movingly about her family back in Syria, about the courage it took to accept the scholarship and leave them behind, and of the challenges of learning Portuguese and adapting to an entirely new culture. She also spoke about her desire to help re-build Syria, once the conflict subsides. Most of all, she said the program gave her back her future and gave her back her hope.

I was also more hopeful after this conference. It was inspiring to be among so many smart and dedicated people wanting to help. As President Sampaio said in his closing statement, “Higher education matters: it is a window of hope that is open to the future. We must act now to find new avenues for cooperation and new mechanisms to help. While there are challenges and a heavy agenda ahead, many others like Maryam are waiting.”

IIE-SRF Application Deadline Approaching
The February 2, 2015 application deadline is approaching. IIE-SRF encourages nominations from universities and other partners who know of professors, senior researchers, or public intellectuals facing threats to their lives or academic work. Please refer eligible candidates to