From Syria to Concordia: 2 refugees who learned English over Skype accepted to university

Four years ago, Dunia Almehlm was fleeing the airstrikes over her hometown of Homs. Today, she's preparing for biology classes.

Montreal volunteers gave students English lessons until they passed IELTS proficiency exam

Mohamad Sarhan fled Raqqa when ISIS took over. He wants to study computer engineering at Concordia. (Courtesy of Mohamad Sarhan)

Two Syrian refugees who learned English through Skype have been accepted as students at Concordia University.

All that is left is for them to get their visas from the Canadian embassy in Turkey.

"I want to study cell and molecular biology," said Dunia Almehlm, one of the refugees, via Skype. "So I want to be a doctor."

Four years ago, Almehlm was 15 and was fleeing the airstrikes over her hometown of Homs in Syria. An orphan, she had lost her father to the war. The fighting was getting worse and she fled to neighbouring Turkey.

Dunia Almehlm wants to learn cell and molecular biology at Concordia University so she can be a doctor. She's awaiting her visa at a refugee camp in Turkey. (Skype)

That's when her fortunes turned and she found Syrian Kids Foundation, a charity with an office based in Montreal. The organization gave her and other refugees English lessons over the internet.

"When we started seeing Syrian kids [in Turkey] between seven to 17 years old, on the streets begging for money and food instead of being in school, very quickly you get the idea that there is a problem," said Faisal Alazem, the executive director of foundation.

"I thought that education would be the best area to invest in."

Quick progress

The foundation's volunteers, mostly students at Concordia and McGill universities, gave Syrian students three to four hours of English lessons a week.

It was so successful, that the foundation focused on getting them to pass international English proficiency exams, like the TOEFL and IELTS.

McGill University students hold a meeting via Skype with teacher at Al Salam school for Syrian refugees in Turkey. (Anita Nowak)

"One year ago Dunia didn't know one word of English and a few weeks ago she passed the IELTS exam," Alazem said.

"We know people who lived here and went to private schools who didn't pass the exam."

Another Syrian refugee, Mohamad Sarhan, wants to study computer engineering. He left his hometown of Raqqa when ISIS took control.

Alazem hopes their visas will be approved later this year so they can start their studies as soon as possible.

The foundation will cover the new students' living costs, while Concordia has agreed to pay for their tuition.

Volunteers from the foundation are helping another five students pass English proficiency exams.

With files from CBC's Zachary Kamel