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From Idlib to Illinois: Saving Syria’s Students

For Raed Tawil, an engineering student at Damascus University, going to class had become deadly dangerous.“One day last fall, a student came in with a handgun and opened fire. He killed two people, and wounded others. One of my friends still has a bullet in him,” Tawil recalls.

Written by Syria Deeply Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

On another day, classes were interrupted by an explosion near campus, window panes shattering into the classroom. Meanwhile, security forces would break up occasional student protests, sometimes using machine guns. For even the most dedicated students, such interruptions meant classes halted, standards slipped, and even teachers struggled to attend class.

That’s when Tawil started looking for scholarships abroad and found Jusoor, a non-profit group helping Syrian students find and fund opportunities to study in the US. They helped him apply to the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), then raised the money to fund his tuition. Jusoor launched a fundraising drive, including a crowdfunding campaign for more scholarships to IIT for next semester.

Embedded in the crisis in Syria is a crisis in education. The UN estimates 200,000 children don’t have regular access to schools. According to Jusoor, whole careers are being thrown off by the disruptions of war to college education.

“There are millions of students being impacted by this. Every day we’re getting e-mails that are heartbreaking,’ says Rania Succar, co-founder of Jusoor. “How do we make sure they don’t have a gap year? That will be an educational crisis for generations.”

For the few Jusoor has been able to help—14 students at IIT this semester, a target of 14 more in the spring—the opportunity to study in Illinois has been a life-changing rescue.   The students say the hardest part has been leaving their families at home.

“I felt like somehow I shouldn’t come, that it would be mean to come here, to be the one who was saved,” says Nour Daoud, 20.  A native of Hama, she’s now a senior in electrical and computer engineering at IIT.

“Sometimes I’m Skyping with my mother and I hear an explosion. They can’t really move out of Damascus right now, we can’t afford going somewhere else entirely,” she says. “Hopefully it’ll stay safe where our house is, but the problem is you can’t really know. Places that are supposed to be safe are no longer safe.”

Tawil, whose family lives in Aleppo, faces similar uncertainty.

“The fighting isn’t too close to where they are, but sometimes it does get dangerous.

Electricity and water can be cut for two days in a row,” he says. “Now that it’s winter it is going to be hard…fuel is becoming more expensive and more scarce.”

They know they are the lucky ones. Daoud says she skips the standard college party scene to double down on weekend studies. Tawil remembers his college friends back home, who are itching for the chance to study abroad.

“I know 95% of them want to leave, but it’s not easy to afford it,” Tawil says. With that in mind, he’s soaking up the sights and making the most of life in Illinois.

“Chicago is definitely one of the most beautiful cities in the world.”

(YouTube: The First Syrian Students to IIT)




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