A consortium helps Syrian college students finish school, rebuild their lives

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Man standing at lectern (Courtesy of Hamze “Leo” Sukkar)
Hamze “Leo” Sukkar (Courtesy photo)

Hamze “Leo” Sukkar expected to feel out of place and homesick when he left conflict-torn Syria after secondary school to enroll at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Instead, he found himself warmly embraced by students, faculty and staff alike.

“The community here was so diverse I didn’t stand out,” says Sukkar, 22, a computer engineering and management major who today is the student body president.

Composite photo showing students and logo of Illinois Institute of Technology (Courtesy of Illinois Institute of Technology)
The institute has awarded dozens of scholarships to students from Syria. (Courtesy photo)

Illinois Tech has been in the vanguard of U.S. universities’ efforts to help students from Syria. Working with the Syrian expatriate nonprofit organization Jusoor, the Institute of International Education and the U.S. Department of State network EducationUSA, Illinois Tech has awarded scholarships to more than 40 Syrian students since 2012.

More than 60 universities in the United States, Canada and Europe belong to the institute’s Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis. Together they have provided scholarships for more than 300 students. A new $1 million fund will match university scholarships to cover the cost of tuition and help pay living expenses for 65 students.

Suhaib Ibrahim, 27, was a year shy of an engineering degree at Damascus University when he fled in 2012. With Illinois Tech accepting many of his credits, he managed to graduate in 13 months and landed a job with a transportation engineering company.

Young man in suit and tie standing in front of building (Courtesy of Suhaib Ibrahim)
Suhaib Ibrahim (Courtesy photo)

“There’s almost no words to describe how much help and mentorship they gave us,” says Ibrahim, who edits the blog SyriansFuture. “At the beginning, I couldn’t understand why these people were doing that. It’s beyond imagination.”

The need for more institutions in North America, Europe and elsewhere to step forward is great because the crisis in Syria has interrupted the education of at least 100,000 university students, the Institute of International Education says.

Financial aid for Syrian women

It has been particularly difficult for women to resume their studies outside Syria. Jusoor and the institute recently chose the first 18 recipients of its 100 Syrian Women, 10,000 Syrian Lives scholarships.

Maya Alkateb-Chami, Jusoor’s director, says female students are now enrolled at Harvard, Brown, Northeastern, New York University and other schools. She lauds what smaller institutions such as Illinois Tech, Monmouth College and the University of Evansville have done.

Despite much goodwill, it’s difficult for many U.S. universities to grant tuition waivers to Syrian students, Alkateb-Chami says. “I want to give credit to all the ones who have made it work,” she said.