Panelists Speak on Refugees in Higher Education

Four panelists spoke on transnational efforts to aid refugees seeking higher education on Tuesday as part of Boston College’s International Education Week. The panelists included Araz Khajarian, a graduate student in the Lynch School of Education, who works with refugees through the Syrian Youth Empowerment Initiative (SYE); Hakan Ergin, a Turkish Ph.D. student; Denise Jillions, who works for the Canada-based World Education Services; and Alexander Yanyi-Ampah, a Ghanaian MBA student at Southern New Hampshire University.

The panelists, who work with a diverse range of countries, covered the struggles of refugees who seek to attend schools of higher education, issues with visas and other logistics these refugees face, and how those issues are met by universities, governments, and NGOs.

Khajarian started off by talking about how technology helps her work. Most of her organization’s mentoring work is done online with refugee students who are abroad. She said most communication is done through Facebook and Whatsapp, but this can be challenging—there are many situations where refugees do not have a stable internet connection.

“There’s other barriers of course, like that they already attended university, and a lot of them don’t have a way to go back and get their transcripts,” Khajarian said.

She went on to explain that without official documentation and transcripts, it is hard to begin or resume studies in countries where refugees have sought asylum.

That is where Denise Jillions’ work with World Education Services comes in, helping to resolve issues with documentations.

“[Universities in Syria] are not functioning—they don’t have the resources to respond to inquiries, they are closed, they’re destroyed,” Jillions said. “People may be afraid to ask family members to go back and retrieve any documents.”

Jillions’ company looks at any documentation that refugees may have, such as student IDs or transcripts, and is able to make unofficial sets of academic records to be used as alternate sets of potential credentials for universities to work with.

Another major barrier is access to funding, according to Yanyi-Ampah,

“Most of the refugees don’t have the right documentation to even work, do some jobs, to help them with some cash flow to educate themselves,” he said. “What [Global Education Movement] is doing is we actually target the refugee camps in [Malawi and Rwanda], and we fund the education.”

Refugees are spread out across the globe, but the biggest Syrian refugee population resides in Turkey. There are over 4 million refugees in Turkey, a huge number for a country of about 80 million. Most refugees don’t speak English or Turkish, making education pathways even more difficult.

“The problem was, Syrian refugees didn’t have any documents about previous academic history,” Ergin said. “They come to university and say, ‘I was a first-year medical student in Syria, and I want want to continue here from the second year.”

He noted that laws were then passed that enabled those without documents to study as “special students.”

“Another law passed by the government [stated that] if they have proof of documents, they can study at any [of 200] universities [in Turkey],” Ergin said.

Ergin also added that there are no tuition fees for refugee students at Turkish universities as there would normally be for foreign students. In fact, they get paid a stipend of about $300 a month while at university.

Other restrictions for refugees seeking education in North America and Europe include issues with visas. According to Khajaran, there are essentially no more student visas available for refugees under the current American administration.

Khajaran said that she has a refugee mentee who was admitted to MIT a year ago on a full scholarship who is still waiting to be issued a visa. Mostly due to the administration’s immigration policy and rhetoric, refugees and NGOs, like Khajaran’s SYE, are looking elsewhere, such as Canada, for asylum and education.

A point that was emphasized throughout the entire meeting was that refugees are not just a problem to be dealt with by a single country, but that collaboration from the entire international community is necessary.

“No sovereign country, despite its claims of sovereignty, can manage the issue of migration itself,” Jillions said. “By definition, it’s people moving from one country to another. And so some collaboration is probably in order.”