From war in Syria to a scholarship in Norway

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This fall the University of Stavanger (UiS) joined a trial project called «Students at risk», that offers students that can’t finish their education because of war or political activities a chance to finish in Norway. In September a Syrian refugee got accepted in the program at UiS.

Nour (2)
Text: Pernille Sivesind Thomsen
Photo: Caroline Sofie Holm

It was the student organization SAIH (Students and academics International Fonds) that suggested the program to the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the department gave Center for internationalization of education (ISU) 23,5 million kroner to administer the «Students at risk» program until 2016. SAIH and the Norwegian student organization (NSO) have worked for two years to get the program in order. About 15 students a year gets the opportunity to continue their studies in Norway. All the students started their studies the fall of 2015.

Oslo, Tromsø, Nordland, Bodø, Bergen and Stavanger all have students in the program, and the students are from Egypt, Libya, Gambia, Libanon, Swaziland, Turkey, Kirgisistan, Palestine
and Syria.

UiS has one student in the program. He’s a Syrian refugee who lived with his family in Turkey before he moved to Norway. «Nour» got accepted for a Master of Science (MSc) in Syria but couldn’t manage to be enrolled due to the high risk surrounding the university at the time.

He doesn’t want to use his full name in the article, so he’s sticking to his nickname «Nour».

In Norway, I feel quite safe and I have nothing to hide, but as my program ends in two years, it’s always good to be cautious, he says.

From Syria, Lebanon and Turkey to Norway
«Nour» moved around in Syria with his family for a while before they decided it was too risky to stay.

After traveling many times inside Syria, there was no place safe for us anymore, especially after my hometown, Homs, was completely destroyed, says «Nour».

In 2013 he finished his bachelor degree in Syria, and started working at another university, which was further from the conflict at the time. He moved there to work as a lab instructor after he finished his studies. While he was working there he applied for a master’s degree in Damascus.

When he was a student he was the head of the Student Union, but he says it wasn’t a good thing.

– In Syria the Student Union falls directly under the leading party. If someone talked against the regime, you got orders and had to act on it. They even started training us to use weapons, but we didn’t accept to have them inside the university. It was completely messed up. After I graduated, I paid a visit to the university to get my certificates, and the new Student Union that was put there by the regime was fully armed within the university in a horrifying scene, says «Nour».

When the war came to the university he worked at after about six months, he couldn’t stay there anymore either. I was trapped in my apartment for four or five days because of the airstrikes. The building I lived in got bombed, and I had to stay there because the bombing was still going on. It was horrifying! I couldn’t stay there. After that me and my family decided we should leave. After three years it wasn’t getting any better. So we fled, says «Nour».

For the last three years he’s been living in ten-twelve houses.

– It was hard in Syria before and the war makes it even harder. We lost everything, our home and my dad’s workplace. It’s been an eventful three years, says «Nour».

They moved around in Lebanon for a few weeks before they came to Turkey. «Nour» stayed there for two years before he came to Norway.

– If it wasn’t for the «Students at Risk» program, I would have had to stay in Turkey until now, without any chance of completing my studies . The Turkish government couldn’t provide financial support for the refugees there, and at the same time didn’t allow them to work legally. So like the other two million refugees in Turkey, our work was unstable and not regulated with any contracts or agreements, he says.

A chance to finish
The student program had already started when «Nour» came to Norway. His visa application didn’t get accepted, even though he passed his vetting process at all the embassies that was requested. It was declined three times, and he had to appeal. With help from the organization «Jussbuss» who provides free legal help, and from people like Magdalena Brekke it eventually got accepted. Brekke is the senior adviser in the International Office at UiS, and is responsible for the students in the «Students at risk» program.

-It’s fun to work with this, but we met some challenges on the way. The visa was a tricky part of it, and he came here almost a month after the program started, says Brekke.

In December 2014 the program reached out to «Nour». He had been in contact with them a few years earlier, but they couldn’t help him at that time. When he got contacted again, they told him there was a scholarship in Norway that he could apply for.

ISA explains that the students needs to qualify for the program, and the qualifications are that the candidate needs to prove that they started their studies in their home land, have documents on their political activism, they need to have proper English knowledge and be qualified for a student program in Norway.

«Nour» qualified, and got the scholarship. He got offered two different student programs in Norway, and decided to go to UiS for a masters degree in Biochemistry. The scholarship covers the students living expenses, visa, traveling costs, verifications of necessary documents, tests to review their English skills and any other expenses that’s necessary. «Nour», like the other students in the program, gets the scholarship twelve months of the year.

Cold and expensive
One of the things «Nour» heard about Norway was that it was cold and expensive. When he got the scholarship he started to research the country and talk to Norwegian people through emails. When he moved here in September he wasn’t surprised by anything.

-It’s not as expensive and cold as people had told me. I was lucky to end up in Stavanger because it is one of the warmest cities. It’s an easier life here. Because of the scholarship I don’t have to worry about money, says «Nour».
He is also very happy that almost everyone speaks English in Norway.

– In Turkey almost no one speak English. I had to learn some Turkish, which made life very hard for the first few months, he says.

Back to Turkey
When the students in the «Students at risk» program have finished their studies, it’s expected for them to go home. For «Nour» that’s back to Turkey.

– Under the regime that is in Syria now, I can’t go back. I don’t want to risk it. I didn’t act against them, but I didn’t act as they wanted either. Also, there is nothing to go back to. Our home town is gone and everyone I know is spread around the world, he says.

He wants to finish his masters degree in Norway and hopes to get his PhD in Germany, or in another country.

– I want to work as a pharmacist like my father, but in Turkey your are not allowed to practice pharmacy unless you are a citizen. Learning Turkish without becoming a citizen doesn’t help, and that’s a problem. My father had a diagnostic laboratory in Syria, but he is also a lecturer. It’s allowed to work in teaching in Turkey, so maybe I can take my PhD and become a teacher there, says «Nour».

He says he doesn’t miss Syria based on the last three years. He misses it the way it was before, but he can’t go back because of the current situation.

– I hope no more people get killed. That’s the most important thing, because every day hundreds of people die. I wish nobody would die anymore, he says.

Wants to keep the project
The leader of SAIH Stavanger, Lise Resvold, says that the projects are going to be evaluated by the Department of Foreign Affairs, and that SAIH are trying to keep the project going while it’s being evaluated.

SAIH is working with many organizations (NSO, AUF, HS, LNU) to establish an information tour in January. The students from the «Students at risk» program are going to travel to student cities in Norway to tell their story. Resvold says that they are trying to keep in contact with the government to ensure political support. They have also been in Madrid on a European Youth Forums annual meeting where a resolution for a similar European project was accepted.

– It will be damaging if the projects stops after a year. We can see that the projects is reaching students who really need it, and that the need for this is there, says Resvold.

The «Students at risk» program
– The program offers students that can’t finish their education because of war or political activities a chance to finish in Norway.
– «Students at risk» is a trial project suggested by the Students and academics International Fond, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs accepted it and gave the Center for internationalization of education 23,5 million kroner administer the «Students at risk» program until 2016.
– ISU coordinates admissions in two phases: institutions of higher education or national organizations/embassies nominates students, or selected candidates sends in documentations about their academic qualifications to the National organization for quality education.
– The trial project started the fall of 2015, and Norway has about 15 students in the program spread out in Oslo, Tromsø, Nordland, Bodø, Bergen and Stavanger.
– The students are from Egypt, Libya, Gambia, Libanon, Swaziland, Turkey, Kirgisistan, Palestina and Syria.
– Students get a scholarship that covers their living expenses, and visa, travel costs, verifications of necessary documents, tests to review their English skills and any other expenses that’s necessary.
– When the students finish their education, they have to go back home.

The situation in Syria
– The civil war in Syria is a continuation, build up and result of the riot against the Baath-regime in 2011.
– The civil war in Syria is a conflict between the government, lead by Bashar al-Assad, and a number of rebel groups, who also fights against each other.
– Russia and Iran supports the Assad regime, and USA and allies like Turkey, Saudi-Arabia and Qatar helps some of the rebel groups and bombs others.
– It was expected a democratic turn from the Bashar al-Assad regime, but they gave the important positions to near family members and favor the Alawites in important positions in the regime. The Alawites represent only 10-12 percent of the Syrian population, and gives all the advantages, at cost for the rest of the Syrian people.
– The riot in 2012 and the initiative part of the civil war was the political conflict against the subdued regime and about the power in the country.
– The civil war expanded to be a humanitarian crisis that threatens the countries next to Syria because of the instability of both government and non-government participants contributes.

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