AMMAN, Jordan — Shahed Idlebi is excited and nervous about starting her second year of university in Jordan. An architecture major, she will soon start learning design, and was just accepted into a mentorship program that will pair her with professional architects. Like most second-year students, she is still adjusting to the pace of higher education, trying to make new friends, and navigating pressure from various quarters—teachers, family and mostly herself.
She feels an especially heavy sense of responsibility because she’s Syrian, one of roughly 6,000 currently enrolled in Jordanian universities. That’s only 3 percent of the émigré population, down from 20 percent in pre-war Syria.
Globally, the share of young people with degrees has climbed—currently 43 percent among high-income countries and 48 percent in the United States. But for the million Syrians displaced in Jordan, the barriers to participating in higher education are growing increasingly higher.
Shifting global attention to new conflicts, an economic slowdown and a major decline in international funding for aid to Syrians have drastically reduced the number of scholarships available to Syrians from peak levels in 2017, so that few can now afford the high tuition. Moreover, scholarship and post-graduate job restrictions limit Syrians to certain subject areas, keeping them out of high-demand, prestigious fields such as medicine, pharmaceuticals and engineering, perpetuating a feeling of limited agency among young Syrians deciding their futures.
Shahed knows the job market awaiting her on graduation is stacked against her, so she says she intends to work twice as hard as her Jordanian classmates, quietly defying the notion that she and her fellow Syrian students are part of a lost generation.
Most of Jordan’s Syrians are registered as refugees, according to the Planning Ministry—giving the country the second-highest per capita share of Syrians in the world. International donors have stepped in to mitigate the socioeconomic challenges arising from hosting long-term displaced populations, including pathways to school.
Relief groups and their supporters have prioritized providing primary school education, but their donors see higher education for refugees largely as a luxury. With few resources and a sporadic, short-sighted approach to funding has helped keep university degrees out of reach for most young Syrians.
I met Shahed and her family on a quiet morning in the final weeks of summer break at their home. Her youthful face belied her ambitious yet private outlook. “I always wait to hear what other students in class say first before I speak,” she said. Unlike many of her girlfriends who have become distracted by boys in class—they are in mixed-gender classrooms for the first time—Shahed says she’s not interested in a relationship for now. In her first year, she learned to collaborate with male classmates on group projects while maintaining her distance. “If I can’t keep my focus, then how will I be able to survive in this field?” she said. She recognizes her planned career in architecture will be dominated by men.
Her mother listened intently off to the side in the large salon. Her round, wrinkled face lit up in seeing her daughter’s demeanor. “The way she presents herself, everyone knows she is here to study,” she said.
Shahed is also practical. Some 1,700 architects graduate each year in Jordan with only around 300 available jobs, she says. To set herself apart, she is focusing on the emerging field of green architecture. and beginning to network with architects in the school’s mentorship program to find a job. “Maybe I can one day go help in rebuilding Syria,” she said.
Figuring out how to pay for university is stressful for most, but especially for Syrians in Jordan, a university senior named Mohammed Ibrahim said, pointing to the fact that roughly 85 percent live below the poverty line. Many could generally afford to attend public universities back in pre-war Syria. Here, they are deemed “international applicants” and must pay fees set for wealthy Gulf Arabs and Iraqis while still not eligible for educational loans like Jordanians. The inequities between Syrians in Jordan and Jordanians are extreme: while 24 percent of Jordanian students receive higher education each year, only 3 percent of Syrian refugee students enter university, and even fewer finish.
Mohammed, originally from Damascus, now lives in the capital Amman. Woefully skinny, he manages to cover his university tuition by working at a political risk consultancy. He started his degree nearly a decade after he intended. “My family thought the revolution forever took away my chance to study, but the disruption exposed me to many things,” he said. Ibrahim says he’s thankful for how his life developed because he can apply his first-hand experiences participating in the heady initial days of the uprising to his coursework in governance, civil society and international development.
The dwindling numbers of available scholarships make for a stark picture. One well-known scholarship for Syrians in Jordan, managed by the United Nations Refugee Agency, offered 435 fully-funded seats in 2018 but only 30 this year. Close to 2,300 applicants applied, bringing the acceptance rate even lower than any Ivy League school’s in the United States. “It is heartbreaking that we cannot select them all,” Tamara Bakez, who oversees the selection process, said in her office. She was standing in front of a wall pasted with handwritten thank-you notes from past students as well as motivational posters extolling the virtue of patience and the importance of staying calm. “And there is zero chance they will get to university on their own,” she added.
Edu Syria is another major scholarship offered to Syrians in Jordan, but it, too, has dwindling funds. Ibrahim Hariri, a stern academic adviser for grantees at Zarqa University in northeast Jordan, said there were 300 scholarships per year in 2016 and 2017—but only 70 last year, and this year there will be none. He has met hundreds of Syrian families who plan to sell land and other assets in Syria to try to get their children into university. “For every scholarship offered, you are not only giving that student an opportunity but also hope to hundreds of younger students to keep studying hard,” he said.
Enrollment is only the first hurdle. Upon graduating, Syrians, as all foreigners, are blocked from pursuing a number of professions including medicine, engineering, education and work in the public sector. Fields with no restrictions include agriculture, construction and manufacturing, requiring little to no education, a further disincentive to Syrians pursuing their studies.
Hamza Al Salam is one of the lucky few to have received a scholarship from the United Nations Refugee Agency. Originally from rural Dara’a in southern Syria, he chose to study nursing because of his parents’ respect for medicine and the long-term employment prospects. Despite the pandemic, he was able to work rotations in a hospital and eventually settled on emergency medicine as his specialty. He graduated in February 2022—but immediately faced a dead-end.
“No hospital will take me even though I know there is a shortage of nurses,” he said. Hamza has joined several nursing guilds to help him find an entry point, and is now considering emigrating to an Arab Gulf or European country. In the meantime, he works at his brother’s bakery.
Jordan faces acute economic problems. They stem more from a lack of foreign investment rather than an uneducated work force. Youth unemployment is around 40 percent, one of the region’s highest. The refugee inflows have further stressed the economy. While other host countries such as Turkey and Lebanon call for sending Syrians back home, Jordan has largely avoided the kind of explicit economic scapegoating seen in those countries, perhaps because it also hosts 2 million displaced Palestinians and has come to rely on sorely-needed humanitarian funds.
Kasem Salah Eddin has worn glasses from a young age, prompting his family back in Syria to tease him that he would one day become a bespectacled doctor. However, the scholarship he received in Jordan did not allow for the study of an expensive medical degree. Instead, Kasem opted to study physical therapy, “any way I can use my hands to help people,” he said.
Upon graduation, Kasem got a job under the table at a pediatrics center, where he has helped children with developmental issues, primarily cerebral palsy. Meeting me after his shift at the clinic, he joyfully showed me a video he took of a toddler, with whom he has been working with, standing on her own for the first time.
Kasem is thankful his manager gave him a chance but thinks it best to leave this job and continue his studies abroad. Unfortunately, most Arab Gulf states require previous work certification by government authorities to land high-paying jobs, something Kasem will not be able to provide. Many Syrian graduates are faced with either trying to emigrate or entering an exploitative black market.
“You don’t feel stable forever,” he said. “The salary is bad. There is constant pressure I will get caught, and my experience will never be recognized.”
This is not the first time Jordan has experienced a refugee influx in the 21st century. Ghadeer Anati, an exuberant middle-aged woman who leads career services at Khawarizmi University Technical College in Amman, compared Syrian arrivals in Jordan with Iraqis who arrived after the US invasion in 2003. “The Iraqis came with lots of money but Syrians don’t have many resources so they are competing with Jordanians for limited work,” she said. Even call centers in Jordan have recently started requiring university degrees.
Some Syrians are opting to pursue affordable vocational degrees. Amanda Kelleher, a director at Luminus Technical University College in Jordan, tries to connect graduates with technical and vocational degrees with broader domestic and global needs. Two recurring themes stand out, she says: employers complaining that university graduates don’t have any practical skills and that “international donors are playing the numbers game, not necessarily guaranteeing impact,” she said of real skills learned.
Batool Turki participated in a pilot program at Luminus in 2015, earning a two-year degree in land surveying. The coursework was very practical, she said. She recalled a field assignment where she shadowed government employees conducting a survey. “As a nineteen-year-old Syrian going on my own to the municipality building to request this—it was nerve wracking,” she said. But, in hindsight, she was glad she bit the bullet to get to observe and apply what she had been learning in class.
Still, conversations with dozens of Syrian high school graduates underscored the social pressure they feel to pursue university degrees rather than vocational training. “Since children we are raised on this idea that we must go to university,” Ghnwa Mobaed, a senior at the Amman Arab University, said.
Best friends since freshmen year, Hazar Rakam and Rahaf Jinniet are now seniors and can finish each other’s sentences. Hazar sings in the university choir while the shyer Rahaf helps prepare Hazar’s clothes and makeup before each recital. “We are learning many important things, not just in the classroom” Hazar said, with Rahaf nodding along.
Both originally from Homs in western Syria, they are proud to be Syrians on campus. “After three years, I think we have gotten half of campus to try maté,” Hazar said, referring to an herbal tea originally from South America that is popular in Syria. In their final year, they want to enjoy their freedom from their families and extracurriculars before the experience is up. “I might even attend my lectures,” Rahaf said smiling.
Other Syrian students and graduates also expressed their appreciation for being able to explore and grow in university. They spoke about making friendships with students from different nationalities, backgrounds and genders for the first time, fueling their intellectual curiosity, getting to speak in public and more. “I got a chance to perform in a play at university,” Mohammed Fedan, who majored in translation and now sells life insurance, said. “I had never done something like that before. It was terrifying. But these are the moments I will be proud of for the rest of my life,” he said radiantly.
Even without clear employment opportunities, Syrian university graduates made clear they hope younger students get the same opportunities they received. “Helping Syrians finance university does not need to disadvantage Jordanians and other refugees,” Mohammed Feras, an opinionated sophomore studying media, argued over coffee in a basement student center. He especially criticized charging Syrian students the same hefty fees other international students pay, and barring them from access to loans and scholarships available to Jordanians even though they are long-term residents of Jordan. International funding should focus on helping cover tuition gaps for the poorest applicants, he said.
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Many Syrians who have completed high school have not yet found a way to afford university. One young Syrian, Heba Mubarak, told me she scored 96 percent on her high school examination, miles ahead of the graduating national average of 63 percent. After interviewing for a scholarship, she waited anxiously for a phone call. Two weeks before the start of the semester in Jordan, it finally came.
“Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god!” she described screaming after hearing the good news. Her mother cried. Despite the excitement, Heba did not lose sight of the larger significance: “I remember when I was younger and saw a friend go to university, it gave me the greatest hope,” she said. “I am fully aware of what it means to get this scholarship and how it will affect my brothers and the friends around me.”
As young Syrians walk a tightrope buffeted by sociopolitical forces larger than themselves, a small, lucky minority is still betting on higher education to make murky futures a bit clearer.
Top photo: Shahed Idlebi is beginning her second year of university, where she’s studying architecture. She’s determined to complete her higher education despite facing challenges in Jordan