KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Brothers Molham and Mohammad Kayali spray-painted anti-government graffiti around Aleppo University in northern Syria in early 2012 and held up flags in protest against President Bashar al Assad’s government. Worried that their lives were in danger, they gave up on school and fled to Turkey in September 2012.
They were reunited last year with their younger brother, Ebrahim, at Emporia State University, a small school in Kansas, joining among about 700 “academic refugees” now in the U.S. who either fled from the long-running violent conflict, attended universities that have closed or couldn’t safely travel to schools in dangerous areas.
The Syrian conflict has displaced tens of thousands of students, and some schools in Syria were attacked, including in 2013 when at least 10 students were killed at an outdoor cafe at Damascus University.
It’s a situation that has created an educational vacuum that universities around the world, including in the U.S., are seeking to fill in the hopes that the young Syrians will someday help rebuild their country.
“The main reason you learn is you learn to benefit your country, to protect your country,” said 28-year-old Molham Kayali, who is looking for engineering jobs after graduating last month.
“People in engineering, people in architecture can rebuild the country, can rebuild the construction, everything.”
The New York-based Institute of International Education has helped organize a consortium of mostly U.S. and Portuguese schools and has provided 158 scholarships and 89 emergency grants to Syrian students, according to Daniela Kaisth, a vice-president with the institute. Similar efforts were made to help Iraqi students after the U.S.-led invasion.
The latest data shows that the number of Syrian students attending U.S. universities swelled from 424 students in 2009-10 to 693 students in 2013-14, according to the institute’s Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange, published in partnership with the U.S. Department of State.
Some of the schools in the consortium are Emporia State, the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, Monmouth College in Illinois, and Tufts University in Massachusetts.
“All of them are deeply concerned about the devastation and the loss of this incredible culture,” Monmouth College associate dean Brenda Tooley said of the 18 Syrian students studying at the 1,300-student private liberal arts college. “It’s not just that they just want to preserve an intellectual heritage, but to preserve the arts, to try to think about how to rebuild either there – eventually – or in connection with other Syrians in the diaspora as they continue in their professional lives.”
Kaisth added that the Dutch and German governments also have backed efforts to bring Syrian students to their countries, and the European Union is mapping out ideas for providing more scholarships.
The effort is challenging, as the students sometimes are lacking transcripts, Kaisth explained. But the students’ compelling stories also make the effort rewarding, she said, recalling the tale of one young woman who travelled to the U.S. after her father disappeared and wanted to earn a university degree so he’d be proud when she saw him again.
“That just broke my heart,” Kaisth said, “because I thought, ‘Is she ever going to see her father again with what is going on in her country?”‘
Farm fields stretch out to the horizon around the 25,000-person city of Emporia. It is, Molham Kayali said simply, “quiet,” after the chaos of Syria and the hustle of Istanbul and its 14 million residents.
As the oldest, he said he plans to use his degree to earn money to keep his younger brothers in school; 25-year-old Mohammad is studying biology, and Ebrahim, 22, is majoring in computer science. All three are seeking political asylum.
Despite scholarship help and a tuition discount, money is tight for the brothers, as it is for many Syrian refugees.
“Even students who came from middle-class backgrounds when the conflict started, their families are either refugees in other countries or if they are back in Syria, there is no business to be done,” Kaisth said. “They are struggling just to live in that country.”
Five other Syrians attended Emporia State this past school year. Gonzalo Bruce, dean of international education, said that with ongoing news about how “delicate” and “fragile” life is there, the students’ presence on the nearly 6,000-student campus is “really great from an academic standpoint.”
The two younger Kayali brothers shared their experience in a university essay contest, with Ebrahim winning a $1,000 scholarship describing his journey from “hell to heaven.” Twice after Ebrahim’s brothers fled Syria, the apartments in Aleppo where he and his mother lived were attacked, he said.
She still lives in what he called the “death city.” In urging Ebrahim to leave, she told him, “I want to see you a special person,” he recalled.
“I left my heart with her,” he wrote, “and I said to her I will graduate as fast as possible to make you happy and to rebuild a new life for us.”