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HOPES Programme Helps Syrian and Lebanese Youth Access Higher Education

BEIRUT—A European Union-funded programme is helping Syrian refugees and Lebanese youth affected by the country’s economic crisis finish their educations.

Syrian refugees who fled their war-ravaged country to uncertain futures in neighbouring states had to deal with devastating consequences, including the abrupt interruption of their university studies. But a few fortunate students were able to access higher education under the HOPES (Higher and Further Education Opportunities and Perspectives for Syrians) programme.

The European Union put 12 million Euros into the five-year HOPES programme through its regional trust fund known as the Madad Fund.

Madad started HOPES in 2014 in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. It sought to provide access to quality higher-education opportunities for Syrian refugees as well as vulnerable youth in the host communities of Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Turkey.

The initial HOPES programme ended in 2020, but its successor, HOPES-Leb, is continuing until 2023 in Lebanon.

Two Graduates’ Journeys

Malek Awwad graduated with a master’s degree in Arabic Literature from the Lebanese University in 2019, thanks to a scholarship granted under the HOPES program.

“It was easier for me to enroll in the programme because I did my undergraduate studies at the Lebanese University, but that was not the case for many Syrians who did their undergraduate studies in Syria,” said Awwad, 32, who is from Daraa in southern Syria.

“If it wasn’t for the HOPES scholarship, I would not have been able to continue my higher education. I am so grateful that they stood up for us at a time we were in desperate need of support and assistance.”

Shahd Khalaf
A Syrian refugee who struggled to continue her education in Lebanon

Shahd Khalaf was two years into undergraduate studies in her home city of Homs, Syria, when she had to flee to Lebanon. Unlike Awwad, she initially struggled to get accepted in the Lebanese University.

“First I had to gain recognition of my qualifications and previous studies,” she said. “I faced great difficulties to follow the system and I actually failed all my courses in the first semester.”

She caught up, eventually, however. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Arabic literature, which her parents had to pay for, Khalaf said she was lucky to win a HOPES scholarship to do a master’s degree.

“If it wasn’t for the HOPES scholarship, I would not have been able to continue my higher education,” she said. “I am so grateful that they stood up for us at a time we were in desperate need of support and assistance.”

Counselling and Study Skills Assistance

As well as awarding 1,026 full scholarships regionally, the programme offered psychosocial and academic counselling to more than 26,000 students . Some 8,500 students received university-based courses on English-language and study skills to help them adapt to the academic systems of host countries, and 283 English teachers were trained.

Students who completed the English language course offered by the British Council to prepare them to enroll in Lebanese Universities. (photo a courtesy: HOPES).
Students who completed the English language course offered by the British Council to prepare them to enroll in Lebanese Universities. (photo a courtesy: HOPES).

David Knox, director of the British Council in Lebanon, told Al-Fanar Media how the HOPES programme was designed to help Syrian refugees integrate into the education system of their host countries.

“There was recognition that young Syrians moving into neighbouring countries were not able to access higher education. As part of the European response, the British Council’s role was to support English-language teaching, because the lack of a foreign language was one of the barriers Syrians were facing in accessing higher education opportunities in neighbouring countries.”

“The British Council also upskilled (local) English teachers by offering an intensive English teaching training programme for academic purposes.”

In addition to the British Council, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), Campus France, and Nuffic, the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education, also helped run HOPES in partnership with 19 universities across the region.

The Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs of the American University of Beirut provided counselling and a recognition service to help refugees understand the equivalent of their Syrian qualifications and how to apply to Lebanese universities.

“There was recognition that young Syrians moving into neighbouring countries were not able to access higher education. … The lack of a foreign language was one of the barriers Syrians were facing.”

David Knox
Director of the British Council in Lebanon

“Prior to the [Syrian] crisis there was not much movement for academic purposes between Syria and Lebanon,” said Knox, of the British Council. “Admission offices in Lebanese universities were not used to assessing Syrian qualifications. The Issam Fares Institute built a tool to help them recognise equivalents of these qualifications.”

Continuing the Mission

Like the original HOPES programme, HOPES-Leb is also funded by the Madad Fund and implemented by DAAD, Campus France and Nuffic.

Carsten Walbiner, project director of HOPES-Leb representing DAAD, underlined the programme’s new localised approach.

“Lessons learned, we have a stronger emphasis on the host community,” Walbiner said. “In terms of activities, it is more like we did before. We have 18 Lebanese institutions that receive project funding to cater for the needs of students across Lebanon. We provide short non-degree courses to prepare for university and the labour market in addition to vocational training.”

The programme now caters almost equally to refugees and Lebanese, many of whom can no longer afford to continue their university education because of Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis.

The Lebanese University, the country’s sole public higher education establishment, took most of HOPES scholarship students. The private Lebanese International University (LIU) has been enlisted under the HOPES-Leb programme  to cater for Syrians only.

Walbiner explained: “LIU has branches all over Lebanon and it is an affordable and flexible private university. Syrians don’t qualify for certain programmes at the Lebanese University and cannot register without a proper residency permit, while they can at LIU, though they cannot graduate before acquiring their residency permit.”

He added: “LIU has a good price-quality ratio.”

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While refugees from Syria share common challenges with other students studying abroad, such as language and cultural barriers, they face additional disadvantages. As displaced people, many are traumatised, have to work to make an income, and often encounter hostility and discrimination.

Amer Absi, a 26-year-old who was awarded a scholarship for a master’s degree in Arabic language and literature, explained: “I have known all the difficulties every Syrian young man would face, especially financial problems. I will never find the right words to describe how HOPES supported me and helped me to continue my academic journey.”

Awwad, who wants to be a teacher in Lebanon or abroad, also expressed gratitude. “The HOPES programme definitely gave me and other Syrian refugees hope,” he said.

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