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refugee students
Zed Al Aas, a Syrian refugee who hopes to study bioinformatics in the United States, at an orientation for refugee students in Berlin. Credit: Sebastian Wells for The Hechinger Report

BERLIN — Zed Al Aas dreams of someday being awarded a Nobel Prize.

If there was one for coping with bureaucracy, he would have already won it.

Al Aas left his native Syria at the outset of the civil war there. He completed the equivalent of high school in Lebanon. He eventually made his way here, to Germany, two years ago. But to study in his preferred major, bioinformatics, he is determined to go to a university in the United States, which has the top programs in the field.

For that, he’ll need a student visa from the U.S. embassy, however.

And, he says, “They told me to go back to Lebanon.”

So Al Aas has come today to an orientation session for students who want to be enrolled in universities in Germany. He’s already spent a year taking German classes for that purpose, which the system here requires him to do, even though he still hopes to someday get to an American campus.

“They made me waste one year of my life,” Al Aas says, a weary smile on his face as he recounts his endless efforts to untangle red tape while living off his income working at a Berlin museum devoted to the Cold War.

He’s resolved to stay upbeat.

“I’m trying to learn as much as I can,” he says. “I really want to study, and I’m a motivated person.”

Deep beneath the surface of a massive refugee crisis that’s the worst since World War II is the less well understood reality that tens of thousands of university students leaving Syria and other countries have had their educations interrupted — educations needed for those nations to rebuild if and when the conflicts in them end.

That could prove a problem for the United States and other western powers, said Richard LeBaron, former U.S. ambassador to Kuwait and now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan international affairs think tank.

“The United States has a long-term strategic interest in stability and peace and prosperity in the Middle East, and for positive change to take place, we know that education is critical,” LeBaron said.

Yet barely 1 percent of college-age refugees are in university courses, compared to the global average of 34 percent, the Institute of International Education, or IIE, estimates. In Syria alone, from which 4.8 million people have now fled, an estimated 210,000 students were enrolled in college when the civil war began. Only 1.4 percent of worldwide humanitarian aid goes to education of any kind, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO.

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Many university-age refugees want to study in the United States, but only a tiny handful has succeeded. To get a student visa, which is different from permission to immigrate, they need to prove that they can speak English, have been accepted to a U.S. university or college and can cover all their costs. They also have to promise that, after receiving their degrees, they’ll go back to their home countries — something difficult for people from a place like Syria to credibly claim.

Barely 1 percent of college-age refugees are in university courses, compared to the global average of 34 percent.

“You go to the [U.S.] embassy, they see ‘Syrian,’ and they just say no,” said Abdulhamid Kouko, who had already earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering by the time he left Aleppo for an arduous trek to Germany that included a brief imprisonment in the Czech Republic. Now he’s found he needs a western university degree to get a job as an engineer, and wants to study in the United States for that.

refugee students
Abdulhamid Kouko had already earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering by the time he fled Aleppo, but has been turned down for an American visa to continue his studies. Credit: Sebastian Wells for The Hechinger Report

“It makes us feel like trash,” he said. “Let’s be honest, the whole world won’t take us in, except for Germany and Austria and Sweden.”

A U.S. State Department spokesman said that all applicants, including Syrians, are considered equally on a case-by-case basis.

That doesn’t change the fact that visa law “is the opposite of American jurisprudence,” said LeBaron, who at an early time in his career was a visa officer. “You’re guilty until you’re proven innocent. Any applicant for a visa, especially a student visa, is presumed to be an intending immigrant” and has to prove a negative — that he or she won’t stay in the United States after the visa has expired. “That’s doubly difficult if you’re coming from a conflict zone,” LeBaron said.

Nor is there much practical incentive for American colleges to take such people. On the contrary, refugees require scarce financial aid when most other international students pay the highest possible price. They also risk damaging an institution’s reputation — and its ability to bring in those full-tuition-paying foreign students — if they overstay their visas. Then there’s political resistance that has included Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s call for a ban on admitting Muslims.

Student visas account for 6 percent of all visas issued by the United States. One of the 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks came into the country on a student visa, though he never showed up for the English-language course in which he had enrolled — something that, because of subsequent changes in the law, would now trigger an alarm. It’s not known how many students overstay their U.S. visas, Alan Bersin, assistant secretary for international affairs at the Department of Homeland Security, told a congressional hearing earlier this year.

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U.S. universities “don’t have to do this. If they’re looking at the cost benefit, they’re saying, ‘Look, we’re already getting tons of applicants from China or India or Saudi Arabia,’ ” said Wesley Milner, executive director of international programs at the University of Evansville in Indiana, which he said has taken 25 Syrian students in the last three years. “They don’t need the headaches. They don’t need the political exposure. They don’t need the financial exposure.”

“Like immigrants that came here for the last three centuries, they’re some of the best and brightest and they’re certainly the most tenacious. … They’re going to be your next entrepreneurs, the next engines of growth for this country.”

The result is that, of nearly 1 million international students taken in by U.S. universities and colleges during the 2014-2015 academic year, the most recent period for which figures are available, only 792 were Syrian, the IIE reports. Another 1,727 came from Iraq, and 1,578 from Libya. That compares to more than 300,000 from China and 59,945 from Saudi Arabia, almost all of whom could pay the full tuition and, in some cases, an additional foreign-student stipend.

Even with careful vetting, said LeBaron, “There’s no excuse for not being able to double that.” Milner, too, said American universities can do more, as his institution of just over 2,000 undergraduates has shown. “We’re a small, private Midwestern university. If we can do this, anybody can do this. That’s part of the tragedy.”

There’s no shortage of prospective students for the few opportunities available. A private fund supporting Syrians to study in the United States, called Jusoor, or “bridge,” for instance, has gotten about 100 applicants for each of the 158 scholarship it’s awarded over the last four years, its executive director says. A new scholarship it offered for Syrian women attending U.S. universities this year placed only nine. The number of Syrian applicants for the UK government’s Chevening Scholarships, to study in another popular destination, Britain, exceeded 1,200 for eight spots.

This desire for higher education among the world’s growing number of refugees and asylum-seekers is on full display in the high-ceilinged auditorium to which Al Aas has come for his orientation session in one of the flat-roofed, low-rise campus buildings distinguished only by the letters of the alphabet that serve as their names, at Freie Universität Berlin.

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The presentation is in German, meant for Al Aas and others like him who have already finished a year of language study. Another, right after it, will be in English.

Of nearly 1 million international students taken in by U.S. universities and colleges, 693 were Syrian.

It covers the required language courses, for which there are shortages of teachers and classrooms; the strict entry policies and limited number of places, especially in disciplines many of these refugees hope to study; and the seemingly endless paperwork.

If they haven’t taken and passed the German higher-education entrance exam, the Hochschulzugangsberechtigung, or HZB, for instance, they have to submit officially certified results, in German or English, of comparable exams taken, or credentials earned, in other countries. Or they could enter a preparatory program called Studienkolleg.

The students respond, in fluent German, with stories of their bureaucratic difficulties, provoking knowing laughter from the others in the room. One asks for more information about the psychological counseling offered, which covers stress, depression and homesickness. The exasperation in their voices transcends any language barrier.

refugee students
Florian Kohstall, who directs the program at one Berlin university to help refugee students, concedes it’s a long and arduous process for them. Credit: Robert Schlesinger for The Hechinger Report

“It’s a long way and it’s a different way” than many of the refugees are used to, even in a country that is trying to help them, said Florian Kohstall, coordinator of the program started last year called Welcome@FUBerlin. “This is a relatively long process.”

Meanwhile, many remain in limbo.

“I don’t want to just stay at home and wait for help,” said Ali Amer Taha Al-Hindawi, an Iraqi seeking political asylum in Germany who already has a chemistry degree but needs one from a western university.

Al-Hindawi, who worked for a humanitarian organization in Iraq, spent seven months living in a Berlin sports hall, he said, and now shares an apartment with a crowd of fellow refugees.

“As an asylum-seeker, you’re in a big prison here,” he said. “It’s not a good environment to study. I worked all my life with asylum-seekers and refugees and I know what that feels like. Now I am the asylum-seeker.”

Five and a half years after the start of the Syrian civil war, some efforts are under way to help displaced university students resume their educations.

IIE has announced a $1 million fund to pay the living expenses of up to 65 Syrian students to study at U.S. universities, paid for by philanthropies including the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The organization has also given 141 emergency grants to Syrian students already here, a spokeswoman said.

A global online clearinghouse to connect refugees with scholarships and education programs, in English and Arabic, is being developed by the Catalyst Trust for Universal Education, founded by John Sexton, the former president of New York University.

Related: U.S. quietly works to expand apprenticeships to fill white-collar jobs

There’s also new momentum behind providing online higher education for refugees, allowing them to work toward a degree wherever there’s internet access.

refugee students
Ali Amer Taha Al-Hindawi, an Iraqi seeking political asylum in Germany, already has a chemistry degree but needs one from a western university. Credit: Sebastian Wells for The Hechinger Report

“The best answer is probably not trying to fly everybody over to the States. It’s not affordable. It can’t happen,” said Brenda Tooley, director of global studies at Knox College, which is offering full-tuition scholarships to two Syrian students who will begin in January.

The online California-based nonprofit University of the People, founded by an Israeli entrepreneur, has given scholarships, underwritten by two Swiss foundations, to 500 Syrian refugees and to Syrians still in the country but displaced by the war, a spokeswoman said. The scholarships cover the $4,000 cost — for examinations used to prove what students learn, the university says — of a four-year degree in business administration, health science or computer science. There were 2,000 applicants, the spokeswoman, Sarah Vanunu, said.

“They just need an internet connection and they can study with us,” Vanunu said. “When they applied they may have been in Lebanon and then they were in Egypt and now they’re in Turkey, and that doesn’t matter.”

Since refugees don’t necessarily have access to, or can’t afford, the tests through which conventional universities require that they prove fluency in English, University of the People offers free English instruction online; if they pass that, the students can continue on. And if they don’t have academic transcripts or documents such as high school diplomas, they can take foundation courses to prove they’re ready for admission.

University of the People is also trying to raise $50 million for a spinoff to be run by and for Syrian refugees called Arabic UoPeople, said Vanunu. She said it would accommodate 12,000 students.

Some proposed solutions would use so-called massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which have low success rates; only between 2 and 10 percent of students who begin a MOOC complete it, research has found.

A Harvard study, however, showed that people who enroll in MOOCs intending to earn degrees finish at a higher rate, of 22 percent. In a German pilot program this year, in which a single online course was provided to 1,200 refugees — the subject was how to apply for admission to a conventional German university — about 250, or 21 percent, finished, said Felix Seyfarth, a research associate at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, who evaluated it.

The refugees “are online and highly motivated and technologically literate,” Seyfarth said. “These are people who are there to learn.”

Which is another practical reason to address the problem, he and others said: In countries with aging populations, motivated refugees with college educations could provide a workforce to fill high-skilled jobs that are now going unclaimed.

There are already shortages in Germany of engineers, IT specialists and health care specialists, according to the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. In the United States, immigrants are 30 percent more likely to start businesses than nonimmigrants, the Small Business Administration reports, and own 18 percent of all small businesses.

“If Germany manages to master this crisis, we will look back in 10 or 20 years and say this was really the badly needed influx of a younger, more diverse, educated labor force we really, really needed,” Seyfarth said.

Related: British universities reach out to the new minority: poor white males

Florian Kohstall, who directs the program at one Berlin university to help refugee students, at an orientation session.
Florian Kohstall, who directs the program at one Berlin university to help refugee students, at an orientation session. Credit: Sebastian Wells for The Hechinger Report

“These students are unbelievably high functioning,” said Milner. “Like immigrants that came here for the last three centuries, they’re some of the best and brightest and they’re certainly the most tenacious. Even if these students do stay, they’re going to be your next entrepreneurs, the next engines of growth for this country.”

But some of them have given up on the United States.

Wael Amayri, a Palestinian refugee living in Syria, had invested three years toward the five he needed to get a degree in electronic engineering by the time he fled. Even before the war began, he said, he’d always hoped to come to an American university.

Now he plans to stay in Germany and study here toward a master’s and ultimately a doctoral degree in computer programming.

“If I want to go to a university in the United States of the same quality, it would be very expensive,” Amayri said. “Germany has done so much for me, I would give anything back.”

By shutting out refugee university students, “We are closing off access to a huge pool of talent,” said Valerie Amos, who previously served as UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief and now is director of SOAS, formerly the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. “There’s a whole skill base that we are not opening up access to.”

Some U.S. universities, in addition to Evansville and Knox, are offering full scholarships to Syrians, including Harvard, Brown, NYU, Northeastern and the University of New Mexico, said Maya Alkateb-Chami, director of Jusoor.

But more need to step up, said Amos.

“You’ve got U.S. universities that have literally billions of dollars,” she said. “They have huge endowments. They can definitely do more.”

The need is massive, echoed Alkateb-Chami.

“Academic institutions in the U.S. have an opportunity to help through education, and to exercise leadership and fill in that vacuum that governments globally have unfortunately not acted to fill,” she said.

If they don’t, said Milner, “It’s a terrible missed opportunity. It’s morally abhorrent. This is hundreds of thousands of people. It really is a lost generation.”

As for Al Aas, he still wants to study in the United States, but now may follow his parents to Canada. Wherever he goes, he’s determined to get a degree.

“I will,” he said. “It’s a must, and I will.”

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