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Refugees and Scholars: Colleges Offer War-torn a Route to U.S.

BOSTON ― Colleges in the U.S. are opening their doors ― and their financial aid ― to Syrian refugees.

Over the past year, at least a dozen schools have promised to cover full or partial tuition for Syrian refugees who are accepted for enrollment. They join a coalition of more than 60 colleges that have started providing scholarships to Syrian students since the country’s civil war began in 2011.

So far, colleges have awarded scholarships to more than 150 Syrian students. It’s an effort organized by the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit group that offers financial help to students who are displaced by violence and natural disasters.

Among more than 11 million Syrians who have fled their homes, the institute estimates that at least 100,000 are qualified to attend college but have few options to do so.

“We’ve never really had those numbers before,” said Allan Goodman, president of the institute. “The Syrian civil war is more complicated and at a much larger scale than any other crisis.”

To help refugees resume their studies, an initial wave of schools volunteered to offer financial aid soon after war broke out. Since then, many have followed amid pressure from their students.

The University of Southern California is offering to pay full tuition for as many as six refugees starting next year. Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania pledged to cover $25,000 a year for five more.

Graduate students at USC had pushed the university to offer scholarships for several months before the administration agreed. Tufts University near Boston joined the coalition in late 2013 after a student government called for it. At Davidson College in North Carolina, officials said they learned about the effort only after students brought it to their attention. The private school pledged financial aid to Syrian students last month.

“This is largely driven by our students,” said Kaye-Lani Laughna, the international admission officer at Davidson. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to welcome a Syrian student in the next year.”

The coalition includes colleges in some states whose governors tried to block Syrian refugees last year, including in North Carolina, New Jersey and Ohio. Experts said they hadn’t heard of any universities taking a similar stand against refugees.

Mohamad Bassel Khair, 28, fled Damascus after explosions and firefights became routine. After going to Egypt, where he and his wife couldn’t legally work, Khair heard about scholarships at New Jersey’s Montclair State University and decided to apply.

“They gave me a full scholarship, including rooming,” Khair said. “They were so helpful for me.”

He is graduating with a master’s in nutrition and food science and is now seeking asylum in the U.S. for his family, including a 2-year-old son.

At least one college, though, questions whether it’s legal to earmark financial aid for Syrian students. The University of Colorado Boulder rejected a petition asking to create scholarships for Syrian students, saying it would violate a federal law banning discrimination based on national origin. The school says it already offers other financial aid to help international students, including Syrians.

Officials at the Institute of International Education countered that other schools have offered scholarships for Syrian students without facing legal action, and they expect others to follow. Daniel Obst, a deputy vice president at the institute, said that more than 230 colleges recently agreed to waive tuition for at least one Syrian student if the institute can find other sources of money for airfare and lodging.

The number of Syrians studying at U.S. colleges has risen steadily in recent years but is still relatively low compared with other countries in the region. There were 800 Syrians enrolled in 2015, compared with 9,000 from Kuwait. Demand from Syrians has been lower, experts say, in part because they had a strong education system of their own before war broke out. Now, many Syrian schools have closed or been destroyed.

Along with offering financial aid, some U.S. colleges are also loosening their admission requirements to help bring refugees. Instead of measuring students’ English language skills through standardized tests that carry fees, some schools are offering online interviews instead. Some are accepting scanned copies of academic transcripts if the original has been lost.

And some schools are also making room for refugees at their overseas branches. In March, Bard College announced three full scholarships for Syrian students at its Berlin campus. Meanwhile, the European Union recently announced 400 new scholarships for Syrian students, and colleges in Europe have also started offering financial aid to refugees.

But the demand still far exceeds what schools can offer. Thousands of Syrians apply for each new batch of scholarships, said Goodman, the institute’s president.

“We have to try,” he said. “The price to the world of having a lost generation is just incalculable, and it’s all bad.”

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