Abdul Rhman Mawas, 17, said he was in math class when a bomb struck the building next to his school in Yabroud, Syria, two years ago. He escaped the school just before it, too, was struck, crumbling to the ground before his eyes.
“After that, there was no chance for anyone to return to school again,” Mawas said. “It was a very tragic and sad day for everyone — for the students and the teachers.”
Like for many Syrian youths, the war that has torn apart Mawas’s homeland has also thrown his education into limbo. His family resettled in Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, and he now attends classes at a school run by the Multi Aid Programs, a non-governmental humanitarian organization. It is there that he and other refugees formed a robotics squad called Hope for Syria and helped build a robot they named Robogee, a mash-up of “robot” and “refugee.”
Against long odds, Hope for Syria scored well enough at a national competition in Beirut to earn a spot at the international robotics competition VEX Worlds in Louisville, becoming the first Syrian team to make it to the international phase.
Only Mawas and one other team member, 18-year-old Mohammad Mamdouh Kheshfeh, could get visas to attend the competition, and they faced teams with far more experience and resources. But judges, impressed by their perseverance, gave them a coveted Judge’s Award at the culmination of the competition last week.
This week, Mawas, Kheshfeh and staff members from Multi Aid Programs took Robogee to Capitol Hill and the White House, where they met with members of Congress and staff from the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Robogee, which picks up balls and throws them into nets, shot colorful foam balls around congressional offices and the White House, to the great amusement of staff.
They came to tell Hope for Syria’s story and raise awareness of the barriers to education that Syrian refugees face. They hope to raise funds for Multi Aid Programs and to drive home the point that refugees, even with meager means, can do extraordinary things.
“With limited resources and very small opportunities, Syrian refugees can make a lot of things,” Mawas said through a translator.
Fadi al-Halabi, director of Multi Aid Programs, was a neurosurgeon in his native Syria before he fled. He believes education is crucial for displaced Syrian youths so they can return to rebuild the country when the war ends, and also to ensure they are not lured by extremism.
Halabi runs several mobile schools that serve 3,000 students in refugee camps, but he said some 300,000 refugee children in Lebanon receive no schooling at all. He said refugee children have been turned away from public schools in Lebanon because there is no space for them. In some cases, when they have attended, they have faced bullying and discrimination, he said, and Syrian teachers are not allowed to work in Lebanon.
Mohamad al-Hasan, a refugee who worked as an engineer in Syria before fleeing and is now a program associate with Multi Aid Programs, said he hoped to humanize Syrian refugees to lawmakers.
“Refugees are good people, not bad people. We’re peaceful,” he said. “With limited resources, we can create success stories.”
Mawas and Kheshfeh said they hope the success of their robotics team will inspire other Syrian refugee youths, but they face long odds in their pursuit of education. The program where they take classes, the Continuing Education and Community Service Program in Bekaa, is not able to give out diplomas because it cannot get accreditation.
“It’s part of my dream to continue my education in the United States,” said Kheshfeh, who missed three years of school after fleeing the Damascus suburb of Daraya and wants to be a mechanical engineer. “Syrians do need education and do want to make a difference and continue their education and do productive things.”
Mawas wants to earn a PhD at an American university and become a software engineer for Microsoft.
“My limit is the sky,” he said, “and I will keep dreaming.”