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Leveraging U.S. College Scholarships for Syrian Students

The Syrian Youth Empowerment initiative guides high-school students in Syria through the U.S. college application process. Its cofounder George Batah explains the importance of Syrians winning scholarships to study in the U.S.

Written by Kim Bode Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Syria conflict daily life1
Syrian students return home after a school day in the city of Qamishli in the Syrian province of Hasaka on October 5, 2016. AFP/DELIL SOULEIMAN

The more difficult it becomes for Syrians to travel and work abroad, the harder George Batah tries to help Syrian students get university scholarships in the United States.

The Syrian activist moved to the U.S. from Damascus in 2013 to study business administration and then embarked on a finance career in Chicago and is now consulting in New York, while also advocating for the rights of Syrian refugees in the U.S. In 2016, he cofounded Syrian Youth Empowerment (SYE), an organization that helps prepare Syrian students to apply for scholarships at American schools.

“We figured that there’s this gap in educational opportunities offered to Syrians,” says Batah. “Most organizations would fund-raise to give scholarships to students, when we came up with this idea: Why not make the students ready to compete for scholarships that are already there?”

Last year, SYE started offering free online mentoring and tutoring on the ground in multiple Syrian cities and neighboring countries. With a budget of $2,700 in 2016, the organization was able to help nine Syrian students gain admission to renowned U.S. universities like Harvard, Brown and Stanford – with $4,032,000-worth of scholarships altogether.

Applicants to the program include students from Damascus and its suburbs, Homs, Aleppo, Hama, Deir Ezzor. “There are people from the villages and cities, people from international schools and public schools,” says Batah, whose program just closed a new round of applications.

News Deeply spoke with Batah about the SYE program and the challenges ahead.

News Deeply: Why was it important to you to help Syrian students get scholarships in the United States?

George Batah: We have three goals in mind. One is to help students who have been affected by the war to fulfill their potential. They’re very smart, and we believe that through this program we can unlock that potential, which will be great for the students themselves, their families and their communities.

Goal number two is to have the students represent our country and our people. There’s a huge underrepresentation of Syrian students in the United States. From our experience as cofounders, we believe that by being on campuses in the U.S. we can be more effective to lobby and bridge the gap of understanding between Americans, international communities and Syria and what is happening there.

Thirdly, we believe that this is the only way forward for Syria, through education, through building a class of future leaders, whatever major they decide to be in. To have educated, strong individuals who will be able to participate in rebuilding the country.

News Deeply: Who are you targeting with this program?

Batah: Our goal is to get them to top universities in America, so by default, we are looking for the brightest people who can make it to universities like Harvard, MIT, Stanford or Columbia. To get people there, they have to be hardworking, really smart, really good in English or get their English good while we’re working with them.

Any Syrian high-school student is more than welcome to apply. If we see the potential to place them in a top university, we’ll take that student, regardless of background or religion. Usually, it is tilted towards people who are slightly better in English and have better grades in school. But we’re hoping to expand in the future and start working with people from a younger age, to get the people who were disadvantaged by the war, who had to stop their education, so we can prepare them to apply to those top schools and get it.

News Deeply: Only one of the students who got admissions and scholarships to study at renowned U.S. universities institutions is female. Were you concerned about gender balance in the application process?

Batah: We had two other women in the program but they just couldn’t get the scholarship. This year, we’re working on having more of a gender balance. Last year, there were in general more male applicants. We’re still seeing this now, but this year, we have seen more female applicants. Hopefully, that will change the cards.

Our priority is to be very meritocratic initiative, where this won’t be the deciding factor. We want to give a chance, regardless of gender, religion, circumstances, social status.

News Deeply: What challenges did the students face during the application and tutoring process?

Batah: They’re all very smart, so for the tutoring part, they just pick it up on the fly. And they do a lot of work on their own to better position themselves for the tests. We didn’t face a lot of tutoring issues.

The difference [between] the two educational systems is the biggest challenge, but it’s not a challenge to the point where people couldn’t be admitted. When it comes to applying to America, you have the TOEFL and the SAT. You have to adjust to the way that you sit on those exams, it takes some time for people to get comfortable with it. And concepts, like writing the [application] essay or requesting recommendation letters, are foreign to the Syrian educational system. That’s exactly why we are here, to make them more comfortable writing their essays, formulating their narrative, getting the best out of them.

News Deeply: How did the war impact the process?

Batah: Even when the war was raging in parts of the country, our students were laser-focused on their goals, their dreams and pursuits. Last year’s situation in Aleppo was a disaster, and yet from there we have one [student] who got admitted to MIT and one to Harvard. It is impressive how they are coping, whether it’s with no electricity or no water or no access to the internet. They get their books, find light and study. They make things happen.

News Deeply: The new U.S. visa criteria require applicants to have close family, business or educational ties to the United States. Are you worried that the travel ban will affect your students?

Batah: We have two students who were lucky to apply before and they got [visas] before the Supreme Court reinstated parts of the travel ban. I’m very worried about how the travel ban will impact the students – not only these students but students who want to apply in the future. It’s not only destructive to the students who want to apply, but it is destructive in general. Because you’re sending a message to people who are the best and the brightest and who want to come to America to study and transfer those American values at one point to their country. You’re telling them that they aren’t welcome. This is bad, not only for the students and the countries they are coming from but also for America. Because America will lose its diversity, lose having these bright people on American soil, in American universities, contributing to the campus and to the economy.

What we have seen throughout this whole travel ban is that no one really knows what’s going on. The officers do not have enough instruction to act upon. I’m hoping that students with an official statement from the college won’t be affected by the travel ban. But what if this was not communicated well? There’s some huge wiggle room here. It’s a gray area where an officer could say that this is not enough of a relationship and won’t issue you the visa. Then the students could lose their opportunities. I really don’t know how that is going to turn out.

News Deeply: Are you concerned that these types of policies are creating a hostile environment for your students in the United States?

Batah: From my observation, American universities and many American people are more inclusive and welcoming to immigrants than the government is. I’m hoping that this will be the case in our students’ future reality in this country.

However, I believe that this political climate is [toxic], it is turning people against each other. That shouldn’t be the case, especially in a country like America that is known for being welcoming, inclusive and for being a melting pot.

News Deeply: Putting the visa challenges aside, where do you see opportunities for your program to scale?

Batah: We are expanding. Last year we got 308 applications, this year we got 1,320. We are expanding our class to something between 35 and 40. The more years we have under our belt, the more comfortable we will be in expanding. We already recruited many more mentors. It takes time, effort, money and a lot of people to get where we would like to see ourselves. But growth is something we’ll be focusing on the more time we spend in this arena.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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