The Syrian crisis… on our doorstep

Syria flag protest AleppoSyrian students in the UK are facing hardship after their funding has been cut, leaving some with fears of expulsion or the possibility of returning to dangerous conditions in their home country. Charlotte Prince spoke to one student who is unable to return home, and explored the support provided for students affected by the conflict by the University of Leeds

Syrian students studying in Leeds face an uncertain future after the Syrian government recently failed to pay their tuition fees.

Since the conflict began 22 months ago, an estimated 60,000 Syrian people have been killed and 335,000 have been displaced. The world is aware of the civil war raging between Bashar Al Assad and the Free Syrian Army, yet perhaps doesn’t realise the extent to which the violence has escalated. The Middle Eastern conflict may seem far away, but the problem has now landed closer to home. Syrian students in the UK have found themselves without the means to pay their university fees after the Syrian government failed to pay its last installment, with some owing up to £170,000. Students across the whole country have been affected, including at the University of Leeds.

According to statistics published by the campaign movement Avaaz, there are 670 Syrians studying in the UK. 100 of them are PhD students whose funding is sponsored directly by the Syrian government under the British Council’s Syrian Higher Education Capacity Building (BC-SHECB) Scheme. This scheme gives Masters and PhD students the opportunity to study in the UK, where they have access to some of the most specialised research projects in the world. However, some of these students will now be unable to complete their studies due to the Syrian government not having paid their fees since the summer. Many have been threatened with expulsion and some have already been told to leave their universities. After the closure of London’s Syrian embassy, many students have found that they have no way of accessing their fees or allowances. This has become a bigger issue after the EU placed economic restrictions on Syrian banks, making financial transactions into Britain impossible. Many of the students’ visas are close to expiring, meaning that soon they will have no other choice but to return to Syria.

Leeds Student had the opportunity to talk with a Syrian student studying at Leeds, who has recently found himself without the fees to pay for the rest of his course. Due to concerns for his family’s safety in Syria, he wishes to remain anonymous. He has been studying in the UK since 2008, as an exchange student from the University of Damascus. Everything had been going well, until the Syrian government failed to provide Leeds with the July instalment of his tuition fees. When he became aware of the problem, he asked his brother in Syria to go to the bank to transfer money to the University. His brother was declined the money, as all Syrian bank transactions are regulated by the government. The student told us, “It is because I am wanted by the regime. The Syrian Ministry of Education had no idea who I was, yet I was wanted by the government.”

To this day, he has no idea what he has done wrong to be a wanted man. He fears that if he does not personally provide Leeds with the £13,300 that the Syrian government has failed to pay, his future at the University will be uncertain.

The student is in possession of a letter from the University of Leeds that was sent to his University in Damascus as well as the closed Syrian embassy, warning of the possible consequences should the money not be paid. The letter stated that “students whose fees are unpaid are not allowed to graduate and are not permitted to register for any further years until their fees are paid in full […] if payment is not received with the specified time frame the debt will be transferred to his account.”

When Leeds Student asked the student what he would happen if he went back to Syria, he replied that he could not return because he is still wanted by the regime. When we asked about his family, he told us that four of his cousins have been killed and his family home has been raided three times. “I have no idea what they’re looking for,” he said, “I’ve not been home and seen my family in three years now.” In the past seven days his brother has also been killed. Any university student could tell you about the stress they already face with exams and deadlines. This student has to deal with stress over his education, financial issues and constant worries about the safety of his family.

The University of Leeds is aware of the situation and has put in place measures to support international students affected by conflict or political turmoil in their home countries. A package was agreed in October 2012 to provide financial support for students who suddenly find themselves destitute and unable to pay their fees. Jacqui Brown, Head of the University of Leeds International Office, said: “Most of our Syrian students are already accessing the advice and support available on campus, including the specialist immigration advice available from the International Student Office. The University’s Crisis Funding Group, which supports students in hardship on a case by case basis, has previously discussed the Syrian situation and confirmed that applicants would be looked on sympathetically. We would encourage any Syrian students who have concerns about financial hardship, not just fee payments, to get in touch with the student finance team, if they have not done already. They should also speak to the LUU Student Advice Centre, who can ensure that students are accessing all the help that is available to them.” Jacqui Brown also stressed that the University has not prevented any Syrian students from continuing their studies.

The Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA) are trying to raise awareness of the Syrian students’ terrifying predicament, stating that academics have been killed for showing alliance with the regime’s opposition and the institutions themselves have been used as detention centres. Only last week the University of Aleppo suffered a bombing attack in which at least 82 people were killed and 162 were injured. These students were targeted on the first day of their mid-term exams. This tragedy further proves the importance for Syrian students in this country – many of whom have come from universities in Homs, Damascus and Aleppo – to be given access to education that will help Syria grow after the conflict has ended. If Syrian students in this country are unable to pay tuition fees, they may not be able to carry on with their studies. CARA is trying to show the public the hopeless situation that these students are in, with a recent press release stating that “We need to support those at risk, to ensure they survive to carry out a vital role in the future of rebuilding Syria, in which the universities will plan an essential part.” With students’ funds running out and expiring visas, they suffer a huge risk of having to return to Syria where their safety may be jeopardised.

In November 2012, the British Council created hardship funds to help Syrian students under the BC-SHECB scheme, which will give them access to £2,000 every three months to cover living costs. However, their British university must first agree to waive the fees or extend the fee deadline and their Syrian sponsor must also send documentation that confirms their scholarships have been extended in the UK. This is proving to be impossible as it is the Syrian government that is meant to be supplying the students with this money. Only eight universities in the UK have given their students access to these hardships funds: Manchester, Warwick, Newcastle, Brunel, Heriot-Watt, Essex Universities and the College of St Mark and St John. Students also face another problem: if they find that they have no alternative but to return to Syria without completing their studies, they will be liable to pay an estimated £170,000 to the British government.

Josh Smith, Education Officer at Leeds University Union, said: “I know the Union is doing all it can to support students who may be facing hardship. So, I urge any students who are experiencing financial or other issues to visit the Advice Centre to see how they can confidentially help. The Advice Centre can also help students to apply for financial support from the University, so I would especially encourage those affected by the Syrian crisis to seek advice from there.”

Leeds Friends of Syria is a society whose focus is to raise awareness of how the conflict has affected civilians, as well as to raise money to provide humanitarian aid. Christine Gilmore, a member of the society, told this paper that “Leeds Friends of Syria has been working closely with Syrian students and the NUS to bring this issue to the attention of university authorities across the UK. We are calling on Leeds University to put a fee waiver or payment extension in place with immediate effect so that the small number of Syrian students at Leeds can complete their studies.”

They are also putting forward a motion at the Better University Forum on January 31 that will ask the Union to ensure that fees are waived and extensions are put in place in addition to the current provisions.

When Libyan students were suffering from a similar issue as the country resisted the Gaddafi regime, William Hague announced that the British government would “do all we can to make sure that they and their families will continue to receive the funds to which they are entitled”. Syrian students need the same support from the British Foreign Office. Their country has crumbled due to the civil war, and it is only through educating the younger generation that Syria will be able to rebuild itself to the nation that it once was. Universities play a crucial role in this procedure and it would be tragic if these students have this opportunity unfairly taken away from them.

Words: Charlotte Prince

Photo: A protest against the Assad regime in Aleppo, Syria. FreedomHouse on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

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