ISTANBUL, Turkey – When the so-called Islamic State came to al-Bab in 2013, Wateen was preparing for her last year of secondary school. She wanted to be a pharmacist, and the first year that ISIS entered her city, she didn’t think the group would interfere in her education.
“When [ISIS] came, I was 15 years old,” she recalled. In the beginning, though, they didn’t enforce the laws that made them infamous. “They weren’t so evil – they tried to earn our love.”
Soon after ISIS took over al-Bab, Wateen said the Syrian military stepped up its bombing campaign on the city. It got to the point where if there was a day without bombing, Wateen said she would be surprised.
“There was a lot of bombing when we were going to lessons. It would be in the street, on the way, while I was going there would be bombing … but with time, with time, you can say that we got used to it.”
ISIS militants also began preventing women from attending school, which eventually led her to try to pursue her studies outside of Syria. Over the next three years, however, Wateen’s opportunities for education shrank from a regular secondary school to a small institute with just a handful of students and teachers, to nothing at all.
Syria used to be one of the most highly educated countries in the Arab world, and one of the earliest to achieve roughly equal gender parity in universities. But after six years of war, the bottom has fallen out of its education system. Inside Syria, UNICEF estimates 1.7 million students are out of school, with another 1.3 million at risk of dropping out. In neighboring countries, close to 1 million refugees are missing out on an education, despite the sums pledged by international donors in 2016 to ensure education for Syrian refugees.
While there is no gender breakdown of current enrollment in Syria, “girls are almost two and a half times more likely to be out of school” in conflict zones, according to UNESCO.
Ultimately, Wateen’s education ended when she was confined to her house for two months during an intense bombing campaign on al-Bab. Although she tried to continue the scientific subjects she’d been studying, “it was impossible to improve by myself,” she said. “That was the last effort [in Syria] of mine.”
Wateen fled her home in Syria in 2016 and went to meet her fiance in Turkey, where she hoped to continue her studies. But suddenly, even in a safe country with no bombs falling, she hit another wall.
The war has put up all sorts of barriers for Syrian students, including language issues, financial burdens and problems with paperwork. But for Syrian refugee students, before all of that, is often a simple barrier: where to find information. With confusion and distrust surrounding host governments and the plethora of aid agencies, Syrian refugees often rely on second-hand information, both for education as well as for asylum.
For women, this situation is even more severe. “Each and every refugee woman student will identify someone who made them and their future their own business, by lobbying, advocating and pushing to support and help them secure papers, documents, scholarships, living stipends, bus fare and breakfasts,” Shelley Deane, director of the Brehon Advisory consulting group, a U.K.-based company that addresses conflict-related crises in the region, told Syria Deeply over email.
The influence played by outside individuals demonstrates the weaknesses of an uncoordinated system. At the most basic level, even the definition of “refugee,” “guest,” “displaced” and “visitor” varies between host states, and not all states are signatories to the Refugee Convention. What’s more, the U.N. Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) procedures also vary between countries, according to Deane.
“Contrary to what people might think, there is no one uniform process for registration for refugees, asylum seekers or educational provisions across host states,” she said. “No one rule fits all. At any given time the rules are adapted to fit the local host community needs.”
Yet mastering this process is essential to accessing education. If a woman has a PhD but no papers, Deane said, “her position is no less precarious than a pre-literate woman with the right certificates.”
Not having documents of certification or qualification from a school “back home” is the greatest barrier for many refugee women students. However, “second to that is access to information, knowing what you qualify for or where you can seek support is dependent on the individual’s capacity.”
One Western resettlement agency worker told Syria Deeply on the condition of anonymity that she notices a difference between Syrians, who are less familiar with international bureaucracy, and refugee populations that have dealt with the system for longer. “I think in general Syrians are at a disadvantage somehow, because they are relatively new to this process and they really are not sure which direction to proceed or [with] which organization to proceed.”
She says her agency often gets faxes and calls from Syrians looking for the International Organization for Migration or UNHCR. When she asks how they got her number, the answer is often Facebook.
Part of the problem, the resettlement worker said, is how difficult it is to organize the gray zone in which Syrians operate. For example, for Syrian refugees who do not have official work permits, “if there is an organization that is supposed to help them, what are they going to tell them? ‘OK, you’re not allowed to work as a refugee.’ But then what? It’s tricky. You cannot tell them [about unofficial options].”
Finishing secondary school to be able to enroll in university outside of Syria is an equally confusing system. As a result, few of the 100,000 Syrians worldwide who are eligible for university education make it that far and even fewer are women.
Before the conflict erupted, Syrian women actually slightly outnumbered men at universities, according to some estimates. Now, in Jordan and Lebanon, fewer than 10 percent of eligible Syrian students are thought to be registered – the vast majority of them men. In Turkey, just 3 percent of some 50,000 eligible students are estimated to be enrolled in university. Of that small percentage, just 2 percent were said to be women in 2015.
When Wateen arrived in Turkey, she found out that Turkish schools required extensive language prep that she couldn’t pay for. An alternative option was to attend a temporary education center, an Arabic-language school run by international NGOs set up in Turkey at the request of the Turkish government, but she wasn’t sure if they would be accredited when she later applied to university in a medical field like pharmacy.
In 2015, when the Turkish government began administering the Syrian baccalaureate exam – the secondary school exam necessary to apply to university that Wateen had been preparing for before she left al-Bab – only 8,000 students registered in the first year.
Even if Wateen had been one of them, she would face further challenges: There may not have been enough open spots for her to pursue a university degree, or she may have been accepted at a school far from home.
When Wateen realized how difficult resuming her education in Turkey would be, she set her sights on applying for asylum elsewhere and enrolling in a university where she could work on her English. She decided on Canada and found out Ottawa accepts Syrian refugees only after they had registered for refugee status with UNHCR, which she had been told was possible to do online.
“I can’t enroll. I searched the website, but I don’t know how to use it. I strongly want to register to go [to Canada] to complete my studies,” Wateen told Syria Deeply in a conversation earlier this year.
Only later did Wateen find out that in Turkey, UNHCR could not grant Syrians refugee status. She had to find the UNHCR office, go in person to register for resettlement and then wait for her application to be recommended to Canada or a different country. It was not possible to do this online.
The challenges facing women who have completed some education in Syria have practically no overlap with obstacles facing women who, like Wateen, want to pursue university outside their home country, according to Lilah Khoja, the higher education coordinator at Karam Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on sustainable solutions for the future in Syria.
Organizations like Karam and Jusoor, an NGO focused on helping Syrian refugees continue their education abroad, aim to fill the gap funding to cover the hidden costs of Turkey’s ostensibly free education. Innovative solutions, like Kiron University, a private German-run social enterprise that provides free university education to refugees, have also worked to fill some gaps in refugee education.
But they’re not a panacea.
Sarah, a 21-year-old from Damascus now living in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, finished her baccalaureate at a temporary education center and enrolled in university. To make ends meet she took a job at an education NGO, but this means she is unable to attend her classes. Without a teacher in front of her, she said, she’s finding her social work program hard.
“I haven’t opened my email for like one month, and I don’t know what’s happened there, but they are sending me emails [saying] open your platform, you’ve got to study, so I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Though their challenges are varied, generally, students are able to cobble together information from each other and online, Khoja said, adding that “every student that I speak with that has been accepted into university in Turkey … [says] ‘because I’m in university, because I’ve already done the system, everyone knows that, so I help everyone that I can help.’”
“There seems to be a pronounced perception barrier, where it is not clear to women that they have an equal opportunity to access higher education,” Maya Alkateb-Chami, director of Jusoor, told Syria Deeply.
She added that after Jusoor launched a program specifically targeting female scholars, they nearly doubled their application base.
For many women like Wateen, however, not knowing how to access support has put their education on hold – perhaps permanently. She married a tailor from al-Bab shortly after she arrived in Turkey, and she’s now pregnant, staying with her family in Gaziantep until she gives birth, while her husband lives in Istanbul.
She said that, at first, her husband didn’t want to have children because of the possibility that she could still finish her studies. But she yearned for a child to fill her time, because in Istanbul she knows no one and is always alone.
“Maybe if I was busy with studies I would not think of having a kid. But because I was unable to finish my studies, that made me want a child.”
For more information on access to education in Syria, visit TIMEP’s website or download their policy brief here.