French scholarship scheme gives hope to Syrian refugees
Young Syrians receive chance to study in France thanks to a pioneering assistance programme launched by a regional government and two universities.
Syrian students attend a French class at the Federal University of Toulouse.
© UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau
Syrian refugee Amera Omar has settled into her cosy room in the student hall of residence in Toulouse. She arrived at the start of the academic year and, at last, is able to focus on her studies.
Amera, 26, is one of 19 Syrian refugees living in Jordan who have been awarded scholarships by the council of the Occitanie/Pyrénées-Méditerranée region to come to France to study.
She fled the Syrian civil war in 2012 at the age of 20 and sought refuge first in Lebanon, then Jordan.
“I left Syria in 2012 with my brothers,” she says. “I had finished high school and registered for university, but I didn’t start because the war started.”
She found life in Lebanon difficult and moved to Jordan, but it was too expensive to study there.
“I needed a lot of money to study in Jordan, but I didn’t have money. I did nothing for four years.”
However, she discovered the scholarship scheme through a friend, applied and was accepted.
“I want to study economics to build countries based on their economy and to help my country someday.”
“People think of me as a student and not a refugee.”
The Occitanie/Pyrénées-Méditerranée regional council, in partnership with the non-governmental organization Démocratie et Entraide en Syrie Ghosn Zeitoun, the Federal University of Toulouse and Paul Valéry University in Montpellier, offered scholarships for Syrian refugees in Jordan to undertake undergraduate studies in southern France.
The programme provides a one-year foundation course of intensive French language instruction, tuition fees, a monthly living allowance for a year, accommodation in the student residence and help with visa procedures. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, helped in the selection process and the administrative procedures.
A UNHCR report on refugee education showed that less than one per cent of refugees attend university, compared with 34 per cent globally. Higher education plays an important role in protecting young refugees and preparing them, and their communities, to deal with the consequences of forced displacement.
It helps them build a future and become self-reliant, and assists communities recovering from conflict to rebuild.
Education programmes such as the one provided by the Occitanie/Pyrénées-Méditerranée regional council are an example of the type of partnerships needed to improve protection and provide long-term benefit for refugees.
Student scholarships are among the ways universities, regional authorities and governments can provide opportunities for refugees to move to third countries in regular and safe ways, and thereby increase their options, as well as share responsibility for refugees while record numbers of people are being forced to flee their homes.
The scholarships are one type of complementary pathway of admission that UNHCR wants to see scaled up as it develops a global compact on refugees.
Increasing options for refugees in third countries is one of the main goals of the compact. Other examples include family reunions, humanitarian visas or even labour mobility schemes.
Eias Elnejemi, 26, also arrived in Toulouse in October 2017 under the scholarship scheme.
“I wanted to do something to help young people.”
He had been studying architecture in Jordan but also found he could not afford the cost. He hopes he can pursue the same subject in France.
Eias expressed his gratitude for the help he received from UNHCR, the regional council and the Ghosn Zeitoun organization in guiding him through the bureaucracy.
“Now I am student, I have rights,” he says. “People think of me as a student and not a refugee. I am sure wonderful things will arrive now in my life.”
He is pleased to have the opportunity to live and study in France. He says he wants to work with refugees and urged them not to give up hope, whatever the difficulties they encounter. “One day they will get their chance.”
After completing the foundation year, students will be able to enrol for any field of study at the Toulouse or Montpellier universities, as well as others elsewhere in France.
Many of the students would like to study law, politics or economics.
“The priorities after the first three months are three-fold: facilitating the access of the students to leisure activities, sports and social life, to decide on their university curricula and orientation and to complete all the procedures for their asylum claim with OFPRA,” says Laurent Grosclaude, director European and International relations at the Federal University of Toulouse.
The French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless people (OFPRA) is the body that decides whether someone who has arrived in France as a refugee is entitled to asylum.
“We have all been shocked by the war in Syria and I wanted to do something to help young people to continue their life and access education,” says Samir Aita, the president of the NGO Ghosn Zeitoun, who launched the first in a series of schemes to give education opportunities for Syrian refugees in 2012 and persuaded regional councils and universities to support them.