Syrians who have fled their country in recent years differ in a significant respect from any other refugee population in recent memory. They have, on average, higher levels of education than displaced Afghanis, Eritreans, or Sudanese, and they also have higher expectations: Before the conflict began, about a quarter of Syrian high school graduates went on to university.
While the exodus to Europe has received greater attention, millions of displaced people now live in countries neighboring Syria, including Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. It’s estimated that 100,000 Syrian refugees have had their higher education disrupted, far more than the local universities can accept. Prohibitive tuition costs and language barriers have also contributed to this education crisis.
A number of technology-enabled programs have emerged in response, including offerings from the global online course platform Coursera, which grants refugees scholarships for any of its classes, and Refugees on Rails, a volunteer-driven initiative that teaches coding skills. The latest effort, Jamiya—unique for its ambition to go beyond typical online classes by pairing refugee students with refugee teachers—is launching as a pilot project this month.
Ben Webster had been working for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan when he came up with the Jamiya Project in 2015. Working with Syrians in refugee camps, he met many whose educations had been interrupted by the war. "One of them was a PhD student in English literature and was now an English teacher in Azraq, and he couldn't finish his PhD while he was there," Webster says.
At the time, the IOM was conducting research on what was driving refugees to leave countries that bordered Syria for Europe. It found that many hoped to pursue higher education. "If they don't find opportunities here, then they were seeking them elsewhere," Webster says.
Students aren’t the only ones leaving Syria. It’s also believed approximately 2,000 academics have fled since the start of the conflict. Many struggle to find opportunities to continue their careers elsewhere.
Webster says his goal with Jamiya—which translates to "university"—is to match supply and demand by connecting people together in the real world, in this case unemployed or underemployed academics with students. While many efforts have focused on offering fully online courses, the nonprofit Jamiya Project has opted for a combination of online material and physical meetings in two locations: the Zaatari refugee camp and in the Jordanian capital, Amman. Once the program launches, groups of students are to work with tutors and each other in person while using online course material. At the end, they are to receive credits for the class.
The in-person component is included to counteract the high attrition rates in what are called MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. Organizers also believe a peer group will provide important psychological and social support to students in already difficult situations.
"I know from other refugee programs that refugee students need support to go through online courses," says Oula Abu-Amsha, an in-exile professor who left Syria and her teaching position at Damascus University in 2012. She’s currently involved in preparing and translating curriculum to Arabic for the first Jamiya class, a programming course.
The program’s partners are widely dispersed. Abu-Amsha is in Switzerland, working on preparing and translating course materials to Arabic with another Syrian academic in Japan. Funding comes from a combination of American and British foundations and a private Swedish donor, and students take classes for free. The first students in the Jamiya pilot, who were selected by partner organizations, will meet with a full professor at the beginning of the course and to conduct exams. Students will work their way through the curriculum online in groups. Tutors—typically more advanced students—will convene twice-weekly sessions in Jordan.
The course will follow the curriculum of and—significantly, be accredited by—Gothenburg University in Sweden, though Jamiya is still awaiting approval to allow its credits to be transferable to other schools. The accreditation piece is crucial, according to James King, assistant director of the Scholar Rescue Fund at the New York-based Institute of International Education. Though still valuable regardless, the majority of online course offerings have not been able to offer students courses that count toward a degree, he notes.
"Doing it for love of your studies, that's hard to do when you're also probably working and have tremendous family responsibilities," he says. "The displaced Syrian community is highly motivated to learn, but also to secure jobs to continue education at the graduate level."
At this point, Jamiya’s pilot is a drop in the bucket, one course for 30 initial students with the goal of documenting success with their "blended" teaching model and securing more funding. Abu-Amsha says the next phase would be to reach several hundred students, with the possibility of ultimately offering full degree programs.
Still, scaling up will be a challenge. Overall, Jamiya is among the more resource-intensive refugee education models to launch. "There's a legitimate question about quality versus quantity when it comes to how we approach this issue," says King.
Convincing universities to put their stamp on a course also takes time and trust. Abu-Amsha has been sharing her work on the course materials with Swedish professors. (The content will be presented in both English and Arabic to improve student’s language skills.) King’s organization hopes to help with connecting the program with more Syrian faculty-in-exile, who he says have been under-engaged to date in efforts to solve an educational crisis of an unprecedented scale.
"We have much work to do," acknowledged Abu-Amsha, but emphasized what she sees as the stakes of providing high-quality coursework. "I hope to be more relevant, [which] will help in reconstruction later."
Jamiya’s pilot course, if successful, could potentially help establish an education model for different refugee populations today and in the future. While those populations and their educational needs may differ, Webster believes that having a model to reconnect a country’s existing higher education network abroad will still prove valuable in different circumstances. Established connections with specific, European universities and institutional funders familiar with the concept could also help to ease the way in future crises.
"Unfortunately I think there will be future conflicts or disasters where large numbers of people are displaced," Webster says. "To have these tools ready that a community could pick up and use," he says, "that would be useful."
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This article was updated on September, 18 to correctly reflect James King's title and affiliation.