In 2012, Maryam fled to Egypt with her mother and siblings, hoping to establish a new life where they seek safety and she can pursue her dream to become a pharmacist.
“Education will not negatively affect the lives of girls, but it is basically the meaning of life,” says Maryam Zaatar, a 22-year-old Syrian refugee, to all the parents who prevent their daughters from getting an education.
According to a UNHCR report on education, “for every 10 refugee boys in primary school there are fewer than eight refugee girls; at secondary school the figure is worse.”
When Maryam was only 12, her dreams were simple; she had never wished for anything but to live in comfort with no worries with her family and in her home country. When the war broke out in Syria, the young girl’s life was turned upside down, and the family was forced to flee, leaving behind everything they had once owned.
I can rely on nothing except my education and eventually a successful career
In 2012, Maryam fled to Egypt with her mother and siblings, hoping to establish a new life where they can be safe. “When we left Syria, we were all alone; we didn’t know anyone in Egypt and that was when I realized that I can rely on nothing except my education and eventually a successful career,” Maryam said after she mentioned that her parents had not completed secondary school.
Maryam’s family do not consider education a priority and her parents never thought their daughters one day would ever need to get a college degree or seek a job. But Maryam was of a different mind, especially since they were forced to flee Syria and seek refuge in Egypt. She challenged her family and stood up for her right to access education and complete her secondary education in hope to get accepted to a university and get a higher education degree.
While trying to adapt to a new chapter of her life in Cairo, Maryam decided to support other young refugees with their studies. She tutored them for a fee, and soon earned enough money to cover her basic needs. Despite the difficult conditions at home, she was able to pass her studies with a total of 97% in her high school grades. She now felt more adamant than ever to pursue her higher education and sought a tertiary education scholarship, as she aspired to obtain a degree in medicine or pharmacy.
In 2018, Maryam applied for the DAFI (Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative) scholarship programme offered by UNHCR and the Government of Germany, which provides high-achieving refugee and asylum-seeker students with a chance to earn an undergraduate degree in their hosting countries.
It was not an easy journey. But with persistence and determination, her application for the DAFI scholarship was accepted and Maryam is now enrolled in her fourth year in the Faculty of Pharmacy at Cairo University. “I was determined to obtain good grades in high school to be able to negotiate with my parents and convince them to allow me to enrol in a university, that is far from our home, in a country that still felt foreign to us,” she explained.
Egypt hosts more than 271,000 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR from 65 countries, of whom 48% are women and girls, while 50% are from Syria and were welcomed with open arms by the Egyptian society.
UNHCR, along with governments and host communities, work on ensuring that girls and women have access to the same opportunities that boys and men get, to be able to show their potential and enhance their lives.
I have seen a whole new world when I started university
“University is more than just a higher-level educational institution, it is a place to meet new cultures and a way to learn how to depend on yourself,” said Maryam acknowledging how she has changed since she joined university. “I have seen a whole new world when I started university; I have met different people and I learned the importance of accepting others.”
In Egypt, UNHCR works on expanding the access of refugees and asylum-seekers to tertiary education. In the academic year 2021/2022, there are 523 DAFI scholars in Egypt, including 119 graduates, 204 ongoing students in addition to 200 new scholars. There are also four students received scholarships to attend the Egypt-Japan University of Science and Technology in Alexandria.
After Maryam was able to enter Cairo University, her example inspired and encouraged her younger siblings to study harder and continue their education as she did. With a victorious smile lighting up her face, Maryam said “I am proud that I was able to change my parents’ perception about girls’ education and now they are the ones who advocate for other Syrian girls to access education in our community.”