For Syrians studying in the UK, the struggle continues

They might be away from the violence at home, but for Britain's community of around 600 Syrian students, life isn't easy

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The Independent Online

As most of us delve unwittingly deeper into the academic year, for many Syrians studying at universities throughout the United Kingdom, the prospect of staying at university to complete their chosen academic course remains bleak. Despite attempts by the government, universities and other organizations to alleviate some of the unique financial obstacles confronting Syrian students, who are predominantly in England and Scotland, deep fears about the future of financial support are widespread.

Furthermore, the psychological effects brought on by the unrest at home have severely impacted many students’ ability to remain and study at university. In some cases, Syrian citizens have been forced to abandon their studies altogether due to illness and stress.

Past support

In 2012, it was estimated that more than 600 Syrian students were studying in the United Kingdom. As the events in Syria unfolded, many of these students were cut off from funding for their university studies from both the Syrian government and private bank accounts. The European Union’s sanctions against Syria also restricted the ability to access to funds in Syria in some cases.

Unable to pay fees for the academic year, many students were initially informed by their respective universities that they would have to leave their studies unless a guarantee of payment was received.

The Syria Students UK Fees Campaign was founded in 2012 on the back of these developments to help Syrian students in the United Kingdom facing expulsion from their universities for non-payment of fees. The following year, the National Union of Students threw support behind the campaign, and resolved “to call on all UK universities to waive or reduce the fees or extend the payment periods for all Syrian students affected by the conflict, whether sponsored or self-funded, so that they can complete their studies".

As Christine Gilmore, founder of the Syrian Students UK Fees Campaign, explained to The Independent, “while many UK universities responded positively to the campaign by waiving or deferring fees and giving Syrian students access to hardship funds, others did not, resulting in a lottery of support that means some students are still struggling to continue their studies.

“The campaign continues and we are lobbying the government to ensure parity of treatment for all Syrian students, a factor which would be greatly aided by the creation of an Emergency Fund to top-up the support available to them from their universities.”

Indeed, in the early months of 2013, following this advice, many universities, including the University of Leeds and Kingston University, took measures to ensure that Syrian students were not forced to leave their studies due to lack of payment.

Fresh fears

But in spite of the financial support offered during the early months of 2013, there are renewed fears among Syrian students and those who work with them about financial security for this academic year.

One Syrian student, who wishes to remain anonymous, has outlined some of the problems she faces in remaining at university: “I received minimal financial help last year – an amount that covered about a quarter of the second term of my second year… I am worried I will not be able to pay my fees, and hence will not be able to finish my studies.”

A wholly unprecedented situation in itself, the range of individual issues facing students and their personal financial situations is diverse.

Some Syrian students have taken up part-time jobs alongside their studies to support themselves and their families. One student told us: “I currently feel that my resources for meeting my living expenses are more limited. I have no benefits… and I am doing part-time work, which is about £30-£40 a week. My expenses per week are about £95.”

Psychological impact

And as the unrest rages on, engulfing the entire country and other parts of the Middle East in unparalleled tragedy and chaos, the emotional and psychological strain facing many Syrians studying in the United Kingdom has been detrimental to their studies. Some students have been forced to abandon their studies altogether due to stress.

One student studying in the United Kingdom explained the added psychological impact that financial burdens have had on her studies: “The continuous feeling of being insecure on the financial level, and on other levels, affects my productivity.”

Despite efforts to support Syrian students both within the country and abroad by other non-governmental organizations such as Jusoor, the fears faced by Syrian students studying in the United Kingdom are deep-seated. Pressure must be maintained on universities and the government to address these financial and psychological strains in the long-term, as well as for the current academic year.