Syria's 'academic refugees' find safe haven on U.S. campuses — for now

A special program offering scholarships at U.S. colleges and universities to promising students from war-riven Syria is providing solace to some. But what happens when the studies end?

Salve Regina University in Rhode Island hosting 3 students from Homs, Damascus

Gais Zifa, left, with friends and fellow mentors during a special orientation for international students. Some of these students are in the U.S. under a special program for those from war-torn Syria, but it is not clear what happens to them once their studies are over. (Courtesy Gais Zifa)

Sinan Zeino survived a bus bombing in Homs, a key battleground in the Syrian civil war, before he left for America in 2012, just six credits shy of graduating university.

From her family's fourth-floor apartment in Damascus, a 15-minute walk from her high school, Araz Khajarian recalls seeing rocket trails and hearing them explode in the nearby hills.

Gais Zifa, a sophomore also from the Syrian capital, was studying for a chemistry final when he noticed "a ball of fire next to the window" and then, seconds later, glass and debris raining down, "crashing everything" in his home.

They were the lucky ones.

All three students ended up coming to the U.S., not as asylum seekers, but as a class of "academic refugees" granted special scholarships to complete their studies, in their case at Rhode Island's Salve Regina University in the seaside hamlet of Newport.

Here in the U.S., amid an increasingly raucous national debate about welcoming displaced Syrians, the trio knows how precious their opportunities are, particularly over the American Thanksgiving as their homeland continues to deteriorate.

"It's an isolated island here, and it's cold! But everybody's so nice and it's so unbelievably beautiful," says Zifa, a 20-year-old biology major.

Newport, a town where presidents John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower once spent summer holidays, is a place of privilege for some. None more than for these three students who get to enjoy a campus known for its Atlantic Ocean views and restored stone cottages.

But their time in the U.S. could be short. These scholarships only last a maximum four years.

"At the end of the day, we're left wondering what happens," says Erin FitzGerald, director of international programs at Salve Regina.

"I suspect most of them will be applying for some kind of asylum, and I think that's great when you think of the individuals."

Very grateful

But whether the U.S. government or state officials see it the same way is the great unknown.

According to new numbers released last week by the State Department's EducationUSA initiative, the number of Syrian students at U.S. colleges and universities rose to 792 in the 2014-2015 academic year, up from 424 five years earlier.

While Rhode Island isn't among the 31 states whose governors have said they would refuse Syrian refugees, fears of Muslim militants persist.

Elaine Morgan, a Republican state senator, emailed colleagues this month recommending that the government "set up [a] refugee camp to keep them segregated from our populous."

And calls to "sequester" Syrian refugees have drawn critical comparisons to America's Japanese internment camps.

Gais Zifa, a sophomore from Damascus, was studying for a chemistry final when he noticed “a ball of fire next to the window” and then, seconds later, glass and debris raining down, “crashing everything” in his home. Now he is finishing his degree at one of the most picturesque universities in the U.S. (Courtesy Gais Zifa)

"I'm totally sad about it because it's just generalizing," Zifa says. "They're visualizing ISIS and all these terrorist attacks like it's all Syrians" doing these things.

"But Syrians are really suffering. They need all the help they can get."

Zeino, Khajarian and Zifa are the first three students at Salve Regina to win full-tuition scholarships through the Institute of International Education's Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis. The IEE consortium has so far offered 158 scholarships and more than 80 emergency grants for students.

Together, some 50 schools worldwide participate in the consortium, which aims to help students obtain their degrees when it's impossible to do so safely due to the war in Syria.

Zifa's uncle, a neonatologist, who left Syria nearly 40 years ago and settled in Nashville, hosted him over the Thanksgiving weekend, doling out gravy and slices of deep-fried turkey.

"They love it deep-fried, it's my uncle's favourite," says Zifa. "I think it's like the most important holiday to him."

As for Zifa, himself, expressing gratitude comes easy when he considers his life in Newport.

"I'm grateful for my parents' health, for their being safe, and for my brother's safety," he says. "I'm grateful for Salve and my family here in the U.S.," referring to his uncle and cousins.

Temporary protected status

For now, Zifa is under Temporary Protected Status by the by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration. He has two years of study remaining at Salve Regina, and dreams of becoming a pediatrician like his uncle in Tennessee.

But what happens next is all up in the air as he figures out how he'll afford potentially more years of tuition and possibly medical school.

"I love helping kids. Everything, all the work I'm doing now, is so I can make a difference one day, and go back to my home country," he says. "When it's safe in the future, we can rebuild it."

Rebuilding is a common link between the three Syrian nationals at Salve Regina.

But their shared concern for the welfare of loved ones back home extends even to the stone cottages of Newport.

Zeino, a 25-year-old senior, abruptly cancelled all interviews after he spoke last week at the UN about surviving a bus bombing in Homs. Salve Regina staff believe he may have revealed too much about his life already, as his family remains in Syria.

Araz Khajarian is one of three Syrian students - she is from Damascus - studying on a special scholarship at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island. (CBC)

Khajarian, 20 and a junior interested in business, arrived in August. In the international programs office where she works part-time, she was the picture of all-American campus life: hugs with new friends before the Thanksgiving long-weekend, chatting about the young-adult sci-fi film The Maze Runner, and worrying about balancing her studies with her job.

Before she left Damascus, simply driving with friends to college was a fraught experience.

When her parents heard blasts or the thudding of shells, they would ask her to stay home from school.

"I'm very passionate about learning," she says. "It's important for girls to obtain an education, not just guys. I want to do something inspirational, and lead people who are going to be where I am now to understand the importance of education."

Sitting in a shingle-style cottage on Salve's campus, Khajarian hesitated for a moment when asked about the anti-Syrian refugee sentiment sweeping parts of the U.S.

"I was able to get this chance to get here and have this better life, and I absolutely want other people to get this chance, too," she said. "I hope day when everything is back to normal or better, we can all go back — every one of us who's studying outside Syria.

"I think if we all establish ourselves and just put one finger on something there when we go back, we can do a good job of rebuilding."

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

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