Going to college can feel like living in a bubble — you’re usually surrounded by like-minded people, you take a range of theoretical classes, your needs are, for the most part, met without much effort, and you’re not always connected to issues in the broader society.

This self-contained atmosphere can help a young person grow. It’s both safe and challenging. As long as you don’t get smothered in debt, it can help you better navigate life post-college.

For refugees, this type of protective environment is especially attractive. After suffering through war, natural disasters, or persecution, a college campus can seem like a fairy tale of comfort and opportunity.

Unlike many countries that have stingily addressed the current refugee crisis, universities around the world are trying to live up to their stated principles of openness and diversity. In fact, many universities are actively courting refugees, hoping to alleviate some of their suffering and help them transition to a more stable life.

“Hope is the strategy,” said Allan Goodman, President of the Institute of International Learning. “Nobody really has the magic on how the xenophobia, protest voting and favoring of walls and bans on people and religions can be countered, but universities here and around the world are the places to do that and to demonstrate that there should be no lost generation, and that the human resources in these communities can benefit us all.”

Image: UNHCR

Oftentimes, refugees need scholarships to attend college because their material worth gets wiped out by their circumstances. They also need help securing visas and all the paperwork needed to gain access to a new county. Overall, it can be a heavy lift to bring in a refugee student. But many universities fear that the war in Syria threatens to squander a generation of educated people — a prospect that would be deeply harmful to the country and the world.

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According to the Institute of International Learning, 100,000 of the 11 million Syrians displaced by the war are eligible for higher education. This is an unprecedented situation.

“This may be the first time in history when the numbers are so big and the challenge is so stark,” Goodman said. “It turns out more refugees and displaced people than ever before are university students.”

In Germany, which received more than 1 million refugees in 2015, three out of four universities are participating in a program that enrolls refugees in classes. More than $111 million has been allocated to the program over four years.

The effort initially focuses on improving proficiency in the German language and offering pre-requisite classes. Goodman said that because there is a dearth of German language instructors, ordinary citizens are stepping up to tutor Syrians and get them acclimated.

Since refugees may be coping with the trauma of war and often face culture shock in a new country, this stage can be difficult, but universities have so far been eager to help.  

“Universities have spent the past decade getting good at dealing with mental health issues and adjustment problems,” Goodman said. “So the industry has the tools and the know-how.”  

Ultimately, one aim of the program in Germany is to educate leaders who can effectively rebuild Syria following this devastating war.

“Those with an academic background, particularly in academic occupations, can serve as models for others,” said Dorothea Rüland, general secretary of the German Academic Exchange Service, to University World News. “As we have seen in crisis-ridden countries, professional perspectives are a key factor for motivating young people to get involved and impact society in a positive way. And institutions of higher education play a central role as multipliers in this process due to their highly respected reputation in Germany and in other societies.”

Image: Free University of Berlin

In the UK, various colleges have stepped up to offer scholarships and assistance to asylum seekers. Spurred by online petitions and pressure from students, universities have set aside substantial budgets and are working with international aid groups.

“Everyone’s on board,” Koen Lamberts, the vice chancellor of the University of York, told The Guardian. “It’s something both students and academics have been asking about.”

The University of Warwick is supporting students beyond tuition and housing. The college will provide student with regular counselling courses and peer support groups that can help the refugees get adjusted.

The EU recently announced 400 scholarships for Syrian refugees. Japan will be accepting 150 refugees to their schools over 5 years and will be treating them as exchange students.

In the US, 60 colleges have joined a coalition to provide resources to Syrian refugee students. One hundred and fifty Syrians have been awarded scholarships through the initiative. The University of Southern California, for example, will be providing full scholarships to six refugee students in the coming year. Some colleges like Bard are making their overseas branches easier to get into.

"A university with the stature and profile of USC must ensure that students and scholars of all backgrounds are afforded the opportunity to be part of a culture of academic excellence," said Elizabeth Graddy, vice provost of academic and faculty affairs at USC. "Our participation in the IIE Syria Consortium speaks to our commitment to the public good and to our status as a global university by assisting those whose educations have been hindered by turmoil and warfare."

Canada, meanwhile, is once again standing out for its unqualified generosity toward refugees. Dozens of institutions are teaming up with World University Service of Canada to not just provide students with an education, but also to resettle entire families — thousands of refugees will benefit from this collective effort.

Some universities are partnering with community-based non-profit Lifeline Syria to raise $27,000 per targeted refugee family. Ryerson University alumni raised $4.5 million through 102 sponsorships that will go on to help 150 refugee families. Many other universities have similar programs.

Image: Ashley McCall / The Star

While refugee processing in some countries has been painfully slow, Canada is expediting everything, fully aware that the suffering of families is not on hold while they await permissions.

“This is a global tragedy and all institutions, all Canadians, should respond,” Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, told University Affairs. “Universities are the pathway of opportunity and the chance for new beginnings. It’s tremendously important to give those opportunities to student refugees.”

Then there’s the online dimension. Several universities — including Harvard — and online education programs like Coursera are making classes free to refugee students. This cuts through the inevitable backlog of applying to physical universities and allows students to continue learning immediately without having to worry about language barriers or being overwhelmed by a pace that’s too fast or inconvenient class times.  

So far, thousands of classes have been made available and the US department of education is working to make the initiative more well-known.

Throughout this global effort, many colleges have relaxed their admission requirements, but, even still, the amount of refugees accepted trails the demand. Tens of thousands of students are applying for scholarships.

“The crisis is so massive, responding to that is going to take every dimension we can think of,” said Goodman.


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