Sinan Zeino had almost completed college when war got in the way. In 2013, Zeino was just six credits short of graduating from Al-Baath University in Syria. Then, one day on his commute to school, the bus in front of the one he was riding in drove over a land mine and exploded.
“Most of the people on that bus died, I think,” Zeino, 26, said. “You don’t know what’s going on. You’re just traumatized.”
Zeino returned to his home town of Masyaf, where his family told him his life was more important than school. So he dropped out and began looking for opportunities to study abroad.
That search eventually led him to a full scholarship at Salve Regina University, a small, Catholic liberal arts college in Newport, R.I. In response to the ongoing and increasingly deadly civil war in Syria, the university had established one scholarship a year for students from the Middle Eastern nation whose studies had been interrupted by the war that has killed more than 400,000 people and created a refugee crisis.
“We know it’s just a drop in the bucket in terms of the sheer scale of this and how many students need opportunities, but we felt we had to do something,” said Erin FitzGerald, the school’s director of international operations.
A small number of other schools have also made slots available for Syrian students, but educators and activists are worried that the higher education of an entire generation of Syrians is at risk. They say that the careers of the men and women who would one day become the country’s doctors, teachers, scientists, business leaders and artists are in jeopardy.
A growing campaign, Books Not Bombs, is appealing to colleges and universities in the United States and around the world to offer as many scholarships as possible to students from the war-ravaged country.
Currently, 28 institutions in the United States, including American University and Notre Dame of Maryland University, are taking part in the program, which is coordinated by the Institute of International Education’s Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis. Universities in other countries are also offering scholarships. The push is on for more schools to take part.
More than 10,000 students at colleges across the country have signed a petition asking their schools to offer scholarships. Christopher Records, a 27-year-old graduate student in public policy at the University of Southern California, has been organizing students at his campus and others to encourage participation.
“This is the rare global crisis that universities can actually do something about,” Records said. “We can offer space and funding so that real students can come to this country and continue their education and then go back to their country and hopefully make a difference.”
He’s seen an uptick in support for the campaign with the start of the fall semester, and the school is now providing six scholarships for Syrian students.
“Our success at USC solidified in my mind that a lot can be accomplished in a fairly quick time when you have student and faculty support and it becomes evident that it’s a campus priority,” Records said. “The administration is generally sympathetic, so it’s just a matter of garnering campus support.”
The Illinois Institute of Technology, Monmouth College in Illinois, Montclair State University in New Jersey and the University of Evansville in Indiana have offered the largest number of scholarships to Syrian students. Other schools, including Dartmouth, Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, DePaul in Chicago and the University of New Mexico have also provided scholarships. More than 60 institutions around the world are taking part in the program.
Arazk Khajarian is another Syrian student studying at Salve Regina. At home, her university classes had become intermittent. Students would only travel to school for exams. The 21-year-old left her home in Damascus last year to come to the United States. She’s grateful for the opportunity to study in the United States, but her optimism about what the future holds for her country is guarded.
“In the long term, I do think it will become better and will eventually flourish,” Khajarian said. “I believe people will go back and rebuild there. But I think it’s far in the future.”