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UNHCR helps Iraqi students achieve university dreams


UNHCR helps Iraqi students achieve university dreams

A UNHCR programme supported by the Syrian government allows 154 Iraqi refugees to attend universities around the country and take courses for free.
22 January 2009
Maryam at study in the family apartment in a Damascus suburb.

DAMASCUS, Syria, January 22 (UNHCR) - Eighteen-year-old Maryam* is living her dream as she studies a legal textbook at the back of her family's rented apartment overlooking wasteland in a depressing Damascus suburb.

When the Iraqi refugee arrived here in August 2005, she thought her plans to study law at university had disappeared forever. The then teenager came to Syria from Baghdad with her mother, brother and sister to join their father, who had fled the Iraqi capital a year earlier after receiving death threats.

With almost no savings and reliant on the UN refugee agency for assistance, they could not afford to spend money on higher education. "My daughter cried a lot because she felt all her dreams were falling apart," recalls her mother, Fatima.*

At a community centre in the suburb of Jaramana last September, her mother spotted an announcement about a UNHCR project to send the children of needy Iraqi refugees to university for free. The programme was launched last November with 154 Iraqi refugees starting degree courses at universities in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Deir Ezzor and Lattakia under an agreement with the Ministry of Higher Education.

Maryam was among those who applied and she was accepted to study law at Damascus University. She is now in her first year of a four-year course and hopes one day to return to Iraq and help rebuild the country as a lawyer. "It is the responsibility of my generation to rebuild Iraq and that's why we should learn and pursue our education," she says.

Her success is also a victory for Maryam's family, especially Fatima, who knows how important education is. "I always told my children education is all that matters," she says, adding: "I prayed to God to find us a way out with Maryam's university studies - and here we are!"

While university is almost free for Syrians, Iraqi refugees have to pay enrolment fees, which can run to several thousand dollars in some faculties. They also have to pay for text books.

But education is also an important issue for UNHCR, which runs an internet-based campaign,, aimed at ensuring that all refugee children have access to education. In Syria, the UN refugee agency and UNICEF launched a separate programme in 2007 to get tens of thousands of Iraqi children back into school.

Mohammed* is also on the university programme, but his goals are a world away from those of Maryam. A media and communications student at Damascus University, he dreams of becoming a famous TV anchorman.

He certainly has some stories to tell - his own. In 2006, he was kidnapped while on his way home from school in Baghdad. Mohammed was beaten during a week-long captivity, which ended when his parents paid a US$40,000 ransom. Four months later the family fled to Damascus.

But this traumatic experience did not dampen his spirit and determination. Mohammed was an A-grade student at secondary school and now shrugs off his abduction. "Many Iraqis went through similar experiences," the outgoing and confident young man says. "If everyone gets intimidated and sits sadly in a corner, who is going to rebuild Iraq?"

Fellow Damascus University student Reem has good reason to feel intimidated. "I lived the nightmare of losing my arm and becoming disabled and unable to write," explains the 20-year-old, who was injured during an explosion in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in 2006.

But, like Mohammed, she also put the ordeal behind her and pursued her ambition of tertiary education. The family came to Syria shortly after and Reem entered high school, where she excelled. She applied to the UNHCR programme and was one of a startling 109 women to be offered places.

"Now I am happy. I feel I have started the first step towards not only my future, but also [the future of] my homeland, Iraq," Reem says with a big smile.

* Names changed for protection reasons

By Salwa Salti in Damascus, Syria