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Ex-pats rush to aid Syrian students abroad

Courtesy of Mohamad al-Tabbakh

Mohamad al-Tabbakh, a recipient of emergency education funds from Jusoor, stands outside the Arkansas Technical University Library, where he attends graduate school.

CAIRO – When the violence broke out in Syria, Ayham Ahmad’s parents and brother fled their home in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city with a population of 2.9 million, for neighboring Turkey. They wanted to spare their youngest son from having to enlist in the Syrian Army and turn his gun on his countrymen.

Ahmad, 26, had left Aleppo before the conflict began to attend Syracuse University in New York to pursue a graduate degree in computer science, an opportunity not available in his own country.

With his family unable to support him, the future he had worked so hard to achieve was in jeopardy as a result of the conflict. 

He went to the international office at Syracuse University for guidance and they recommended that he apply for emergency funding from an organization aptly named “Jusoor” in Arabic or “Bridges” in English.  

Their response was immediate. “It was a very good feeling when somebody called me to tell me I would be able to receive funds [for tuition], to know that people cared about my education. They really do care. I don’t know what would have happened without the funds.” His parents were relieved and grateful. At least one dream would not have to be sacrificed.

The financial miracle was the result of the work of expatriate Syrians who decided to take action to help their fellow citizens caught in the crossfires of the conflict.

“In Syria my mother was a professor at the University of Aleppo, my father was a mechanical engineer and my brother was studying law,” said Ahmad, in a phone interview. “But now [my brother] had to stop his education and they cannot work. My parents are living off their savings [in Turkey]. The situation is deteriorating every day. They cannot return to Syria without putting the whole family in danger.”  

Just like the other approximately 100,000 Syrian citizens, according to the UN Refugee Agency, who have been forced to flee their country because of the violent conflict between President Bashar al-Assad and anti-government forces that began in March 2001, Ahmad’s family faces an uncertain future.  

A cause everyone believes in: education
“We wanted to do something. The situation in Syria was urgent, people really want to help but don’t know how. Jussor is an outlet,” said Dania Ismail, co-founder of Jussor and a Dubai resident, in a phone interview. “We don’t take sides on politics or religion, and people appreciate having a way to help without getting entangled with politics.”

Ismail and her colleagues knew they wanted to focus on what unites people rather than on what divides them.

Courtesy Jusoor

Attendees view art in Dubai at an auction hosted by Jusoor aimed at raising funds for Syrian students studying abroad on May 25, 2012.

“Jusoor has brought the Syrian community together behind a cause that everybody believes in: education,” explained New York based co-founder Rania Succar.

Their mission is to mobilize the expatriate community to invest in the next generation of Syrians who are studying or want to study abroad.

“We asked what we could do in the shortest possible time to help make that happen. It was so hard to get involved at the time. Jusoor was a way for us to make a difference in the short-term as well as the long-term,” said Succar, a Harvard graduate, over the phone.

Members provide mentorship for those who want to study overseas and need guidance, they raise emergency funding for those caught midway through their foreign studies with no access to funds due to sanctions and job loss, and solicit scholarships for talented students who face a life of fear and danger if they stay home. In order to raise funds, they held an auction of donated Syrian artwork in Dubai and have reached out to potential donors. 

The mentorship program, which is currently working with about 90 applicants, matches Syrian students who want to study abroad with those who have already worked their way through the maze of standardized tests, college selection and visa applications to gain admission overseas.

“It is a very simple thing you are giving these students by joining the program: time,” said Ismail.

Jusoor’s Emergency Aid program has had the largest impact. Jusoor has partnered with the Institute of International Education to raise $50,000 to support 50 Syrian university students studying in the U.S. with emergency financing to help them continue their education when the crisis in Syria undermined their financial support.

“It has been the most impactful thing we have done,” said Ismail.

‘Syrian students are not left alone’
Mohamad Al-Tabbakh, a 28-year-old graduate student from Aleppo, received emergency funding to continue his emergency management studies at Arkansas Technical University.  

“When Jusoor provided this scholarship it was in a very professional way. They did not ask what my attitude to the crisis was, or my background. It was given to me as a Syrian student only, without any other considerations. That was wonderful. For me as a student, Jusoor and the emergency funding they provided made me feel like Syrian students are not left alone.”

For students like Ahmad, the opportunity to study in the U.S. is priceless. 

Courtesy of Malda Takieddine

Malda Takieddine, a recipient of emergency education funds from Jusoor, attends graduate school in Seattle Washington.

"The U.S. provides the best education; it is advanced. Sadly in Syria the education is on a whole different level. Education is one of the reasons why the students were part of the [Arab Spring] uprising,” said Ahmad. “We demanded a better education. I am so happy to be able to continue in the U.S. and not lose this opportunity that I have right now.” 

Ahmad returned to Syria shortly after the crisis began and took to the streets with other young protesters in the struggle for a better quality of life.

“As a student I was part of the uprising in Syria. We were peaceful protesters; the only thing I took to the street was a bottle of water, so that I would never lose my voice.” Ahmad was fortunate and left Syria before the situation deteriorated. He has not been able to return since.

Al-Tabbakh would like all Syrians to share the freedom he now enjoys in Arkansas. “In America I am free, I can do anything. Here I have the freedom Syrians are fighting for.”

Malda Takieddine is trying to look beyond the bombed-out buildings and besieged neighborhoods in Syria to a day when she can help create a lush and landscaped future for her country. Takieddine, a 25-year-old graduate student studying landscape architecture at the University of Washington, also received emergency aid from Jussor.

“I will return to Syria after things calm down. I want to work in landscape architecture. We [Syrians] definitely need this,” said Takieddine. "This is the only thing we can do now. The most important thing for Syrian people is to build our education in order to build our future. It is crucial to the process of development.” 

Along with Al-Tabbakh and Ahmad, Takieddine intends to join the mentorship program to help other hopeful applicants have the same chance at a bright future, despite a bleak present.

NBC News Charlene Gubash contributed to this report.

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