For Syrian refugees in Jordan, higher education remains a dream

For Syrian refugees in Jordan, higher education remains a dream
In-depth: Banned from public universities, even with a hard-won high school diploma, many refugees - particularly women - give up on their hopes of pursuing education, writes Aman Madan.
7 min read
27 July, 2017
Getting refugee children through school is difficult, but chances of attending university are slim [AFP]

"It's like going from heaven to hell," says 21-year-old Israa Khaled Hamad, a Syrian refugee from Damascus.

Like thousands of other Syrians, Hamad fled her hometown in April 2012 for Jordan. It wasn't a choice she made, but a choice that was made for her.

She spoke to The New Arab over the phone, fearful that her husband would know she was speaking to the press. Her name has been changed for her safety.

Five years after migrating to Jordan, she has found refuge in a village on the outskirts of Amman - a popular spot for many Syrian families, given the relatively low cost of living. The cost of housing is much lower here on the periphery than it is in the heartland of Jordan's only bustling metropolis.

Hamad's story is not unique; she is one of the thousands of Syrians whose hidden faces and untold stories now make up a larger Syrian history.

But unlike a slim majority of high school students in Jordan, Hamad passed the Tawjihi, Jordan's final year school exam - a difficult feat for any student, Syrian or Jordanian, and a prerequisite for admission into Jordanian universities.

In 2016, just 44 percent of students in Jordan passed the final year exam, sparking a nation-wide debate both about the effectiveness of the exam in evaluating a student's academic potential and the often disastrous toll that prospects of failure had on students and their families.

Daoud Kuttab is a veteran Palestinian journalist.

"The problem in the Middle East is that because of the different levels of education, most regional universities and institutions of higher education use only one measurement for admitting students," he told The New Arab.

The situation has been a big let-down for many young people who finished high school, took the examination, and wanted to pursue higher education - but they are stuck

The influx of Syrians to Jordan since 2011 has not helped alleviate the disparities in education levels. "When the Syrian refugees came, they were outside their country, and they were going to schools here, but there was no applicable examination they could apply to - except the Tawjihi," says Kuttab.

Syrian refugees in Jordan often simply do not have the
resources to get their children through the
high school diploma, let alone attend university [AFP]

"At the time, there were promises from the Syrian opposition that they had reached some type of validation agreement with Jordan's Ministry of Education to validate the results of Tawjihi supervised by the Syrian opposition.

"For some reason this has never materialised, and the situation has been a big let-down for many young people who finished high school, took the examination, and wanted to pursue higher education - but they are stuck."

Despite her circumstances and the prevailing bureaucracies of the Syrian opposition and the Jordanian government, Hamad presses on, believing more in the promise of an education than in the prospect of failure.

"When I moved to Amman, there was no school, [so] I asked to join school after the holiday," she says. Despite being placed in the wrong class for her age, Hamad eventually made it through high school and registered herself for the Tawjihi exam.

In Jordan, the Tawjihi is not easy to afford - and the price is even more pronounced for Syrian families, who often choose to allocate limited resources towards more immediate needs - food, water and clothing - than the costs associated with commissioning a tutor.

Hamad's family, however, was different.

"My parents supported me to the maximum they could and they put all their efforts just to make sure I passed," she says. Hamad's family invested 600 Jordanian Dinars ($850) in preparation for the exam's English section alone.

Hamad passed with flying colours, but a college education was still not yet on the cards. As a Syrian refugee, she is banned from attending public institutions, and enrolling in a private university was a provilege reserved only to the limited few with sufficient financial means.

Like countless other Syrian students in Jordan, Hamad was forced to search for a scholarship - a difficult task given the limited number of scholarships available and a widespread lack of know-how regarding the completion of difficult and often lengthy applications.

Most scholarships Hamad pursued were offered to those whose education had been interrupted for several years - not students who had just passed the Tawjihi.

"I discovered that when my mother and I asked about this scholarship, the scholarship only applied to those who had passed Tawjihi but had stopped their education for years," she said.

Hamad kept searching - for another two years - but her search was fruitless. Aged 21, she chose to get married instead of continuing her education. She wanted to study Sharia, but today Hamad dreams not of the intricacies and nuances of Islamic law, but rather of the "three or four children" she hopes to raise alongside her husband.

What does this mean for Jordan?

Many experts worry that this status quo is unsustainable for the Hashemite Kingdom. Nearly 2,000 Jordanians have joined the Islamic State group in the past three years, making Jordan one of the region's largest exporters of militants.

"Jordan's economic strategy has been to invest in a strong education sector geared towards technology-driven innovation," said Erica Harper, executive director of the West Asia and North Africa Institute in Amman.

Despite a disproportionate focus on investment in education, Syrians, who now make up nearly 10 percent of Jordan's population, have been systematically denied access to higher education, forcing many Syrian refugees to take up jobs they otherwise would not be doing.

This has led many to contend that the emergence of a lost generation is both a likely and dangerous prospect for the future.

"This has been a problem that has resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of Syrians finishing high school and being stuck not being able to go to university," says Kuttab.

Despite the Jordanians who either joined the Islamic State group or who expressed sympathy with its ambitions, Jordan has been relatively immune to terrorist attacks on its own soil. The December attack on Jordan's Karak Castle was a notable exception, but by and large, Jordan has established itself as an island of refuge in a sea of war and suffering.

But many worry that this "lost generation" will pose a serious national security risk, particularly in the south where access to opportunity and development as a whole remain disproportionately low.

According to Mohammed al-Ersan, editor-in-chief of Amman's Radio al-Balad and an expert on Jordanian Islamist movements, the possibility of increased radicalisation among the Syrian community in the short term is low, but not impossible - and certainly much more likely if present trends continue.

The real challenge, says Ersan, is presented in cultural and demographic tensions, which have increased since the arrival of Syrians in 2011.

No longer does she revel in the hope of one day painlessly quoting Islamic scholars and debating the intricacies of the Sharia. No longer does Hamad dream of providing a uniquely feminist voice to Islam

Hate speech against Syrian refugees has often dominated the discourse regarding refugees in Jordan, culminating in demographic tensions between ethnic Jordanians and newly arrived Syrians - who are either perceived as lazy if they remain unemployed, or as "leeches" who are unjustifiably sucking up Jordan's already limited opportunities.

If Syrians are not given equal access to education in Jordan, says Ersan, social tensions - particularly in rural communities - will be more pronounced, leading to both security and economic challenges in the future—a prospect that scares many Jordanians.

For Hamad, life is different now. No longer does she anxiously await the start of the school day, and no longer does she revel in the hope of one day painlessly quoting Islamic scholars and debating the intricacies of the Sharia.

No longer does Hamad dream of providing a uniquely feminist voice to Islam.

Despite these setbacks, Hamad will certainly be okay - her life will continue in the same way as it is now. She will go on to have children and those children will call Jordan their home.

Perhaps those children will be privileged enough to live in a Jordan where access to education is no luxury, but an essential right for everyone. 

Aman Madan is a freelance journalist and student fellow at the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. His two month long series focuses on Jordanian identity, with a particular emphasis on urban refugeeism. Follow him on Twitter: @madan_aman_

This coverage has been made possible by the 
Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting,