26 Jun June Live Talk: Higher Education Changed the Story
Higher Education Changed the Story. Such was the topic of our live talk with Sami-Al-Ahmad, CEO and Co-Founder of MARJ3; Ehab Badwi, Founder and President of Syrian Youth Assembly (SYA); and Dr. Gul Inanc, Founder of Opening Universities for Refugees (OUR). Moderated by Fugee’s Founder, Deborah Henry, the panels discussed the importance of higher education in nurturing a generation of changemakers amongst displaced communities.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Tuning in from different parts of the world, the panels shared their journey, from accessing higher education to creating higher education opportunities for refugees.
Born and raised in Syria, Ehab was actively involved in volunteering for his community when the Syrian War broke out in 2011. After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering, he committed to traveling paired with humanitarian work, where he was experienced in empowering youth through education.
Currently residing in Germany, Ehab realized that higher education is warranted before youth in Syrian can partake in the nation’s peacebuilding.
“In 2016, I founded the Syrian Youth Assembly with a group of friends to work on how we could respond to what the young people from Syria need,” said Ehab.
By building partnerships with various distinguished organizations, including Coursera and the University of People, Syrian Youth Assembly conducted need-analyses, pinpointing needs and challenges to be fulfilled and overcome for young refugees to gain access to education, skills development, and the job market.
Also from Syria, Sami came to Egypt to continue his tertiary education. However, the transition was not seamless and streamlined.
“I didn’t know anyone that could help me about how I can continue my study where I should ask what is anything I can do,” said Sami, reflecting on the obstacles he endured to access education.
His successful transfer had intrigued his former colleagues to reach out for guidance and slowly formed a community to help Syrians access higher education in Egypt.
He soon realized that challenges that come with enrollment or transitioning are prevalent across people in all Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regions. Hence, the conception of MARJ3.
“My two co-founders and I started MARJ3, which means reference in Arabic. It’s a platform helping students from all MENA regions to connect to higher education or education opportunities all over the world.”
Striving to build a comprehensive database for access to higher education information, MARJ3’s key focus areas encompass scholarships, skill courses, and learning opportunities all around the world in partnership with 300 universities.
A modern diplomatic historian who grew up in a refugee household, displacement was a taboo topic in Dr. Gul’s family.
“We were not allowed to talk about this or ask any questions to grandma about her childhood,” explained Dr. Gul.
Affected by the outbreak of the Syrian War in 2011, Dr. Gul’s life came to a significant turning point when she enrolled in a Refugee Studies course offered by York University.
Inspired by Doctors Without Border, she founded Opening University for Refugees, an initiative underpinned by the motives to Collaborate, Change, and Create. The platform aims to connect universities across Southeast Asia to offer higher education courses for the displaced community in the region.
Digitalisation of education
“Education is becoming revolutionary due to the pandemic,” said Sami, who considered the transition to e-learning has made education more agile. He observed that online education reduces the burden of paperwork on refugee students and expedites the enrolment process, wherever and whenever.
Ehab also noted that online platforms are globalizing education. Indeed, the benefits of e-learning, e.g., high flexibility and accessibility, low cost, are evident.
Connects Refugees to Equitable, Equal, and Inclusive Higher Education
Scholarships are unequivocally essential to support a refugee’s higher education. Still, they should be supplemented with capacity-building services so that more refugees are aware of the opportunity and equip themselves with the required qualifications.
“There are refugees who are qualified for scholarships, but they don’t know that they are qualified. And also, they are qualified, but they don’t know that this scholarship was there.”
Furthering the discussion, Ehad urged higher education institutions to discern refugee students from international students due to vast differences in needs and challenges between the two demographics.
“They are international students with special needs; you cannot force young refugees to be engaged in a school while forgetting all the challenges they are facing as a refugee. Don’t forget that.”
Dr. Gul put together the refugee’s access rate to higher education (3%) and the global access rate of 37%, highlighting that the issue with a low access rate is related to neglected principles of inclusivity and equity from tertiary education institutions.
“Sometimes universities turn out to be business models that they forgot what they actually need to be,” criticized Dr. Gul.
She continued to shed light on the trend in alarming protracted refugee situations and decreasing numbers of resettlement. She proposed to adopt a societal approach to create intercultural dialogue that encourages change in resolving stigmas and negative stereotypes imposed on the refugee communities.
Messages of Hope
In times of desperation, do not lose hope.
Ehab encourages future changemakers to pursue higher education regardless of where they are or their age. “We are always counting on you,” he said, hopeful that an educated generation will prompt peacebuilding in Syria.
Sami recognized the hardships that come with having to leave one’s past behind, and to rebuild one’s life from nothing. He advised the displaced communities to take up a realistic yet hopeful view of their circumstances.
“A fresh start means that people you meet now do not know about your past, and that’s both good and bad. But you still have your experience and knowledge with you, and that can be a wonderful beginning for a better future.”
Dr. Gul emphasized the importance of knowing one’s rights as a human as a crucial factor to achieving self-determination.
“Recognize that higher education is your right, no matter where you are,” said Dr. Gul. “Education does not only mean a better life or access to jobs or financial gains; it also means protection – right-based protection through visibility and recognition.”