An Open Letter from a Displaced Syrian Student

Student in library with text overlay "I am part of the 3%. #15by30"

Dear Friend,

My name is Ibrahim. I am a 29-year old Syrian who has been living in Germany for three and a half years now. I  recently graduated from a master’s program in international economics and management at the University of Paderborn in Germany.

I am not sure how to  communicate so many feelings and moments that I have lived through up until this point in my life. So many of these moments are flashing before my eyes while I’m writing this letter. Moments of uncertainty, sadness, confusion, hopefulness, stress, and most importantly, moments of success.


Since the war in my home country broke out in 2011, thousands of students have lost access to education due to the uncertainty of life in Syria. Many had to move to other cities in the country, and others had to move to other countries. Surrounded by this uncertainty, I made the decision to pursue a master’s degree abroad in early in 2015.


The process of acquiring a study visa -or any kind of visa for that matter- for Syrians is long, tortuous, and often unsuccessful. It took me one year from the moment I decided to apply to study in Germany to the moment I got the visa in mid-2016. To make this happen, I, like many other Syrians, had to pay money to brokers to secure my visa appointment, sending application materials, and other services that are easily accessible and free in other countries. The obstacles are seemingly endless, and I was lucky in my outcome. Still, receiving a visa does not solve all your problems. 


The biggest challenge for  Syrian students living abroad is financial security. The Syrian currency has lost so much of its value and Syrian students cannot depend on their parents to support them financially. To give you an idea of how serious this issue is, a schoolteacher in Syria, like my late mother or my three aunts, had an average salary of around $300 per month prior to the war, today, it’s around $50.  For most parents, it is impossible to finance a student living abroad where the living expenses are around $1000 or higher per month. This put me in a difficult financial situation that prevented me from focusing on my studies in Germany. So I began to apply for scholarships with the hope that some opportunity might come my way.


After applying for many scholarships, I received an email from the Institute of International Education (IIE) that I will never forget. It was to inform me that I was selected to be a recipient of the 2017 IIE Scholarship for Syrian Students, which supported studies in the United States. The levels of joy and motivation that I felt were indescribable. It meant that I was finally able to pursue a higher degree while being financially secure, and that I could focus all of my efforts on reaching my full potential, academically and socially. It meant that I no longer need to live in a stressful and uncertain environment. I felt supported. People out there believed in me, and I had all the motivation in the world to live up to that challenge. That morning marked the beginning of a very wonderful and exciting chapter in my life.


I was shocked when the Executive Order that was signed in January 2017 prevented me from applying for a study visa to the United States. However, the IIE team managed to secure a university admission for me in Canada, which renewed my hopes that I wasn’t going to lose this scholarship opportunity. I was, again, surprised and devastated when the Canadians rejected my visa application twice on the basis that they were “not satisfied that the applicant would leave Canada after the end of his studies”. I wondered, how can you reject a visa application from a student who has been displaced and simply wants to access this rare educational opportunity for a better life? Again, the IIE team was nowhere near giving up on me. Their commitment to increase access to education for all students everywhere led them to secure funding for me to study at the University of Paderborn in Germany.


And here we are. I have graduated and am doing an internship in valuation and transaction advisory services. After that, another chapter of my life will start.


While I was able to successfully connect to education, the stark reality is that only 3% of 78.5 million refugees have the same access to education. It is important to increase efforts that help students take the first steps to a secure and prosperous life. IIE’s contributions to the #15by30 campaign is a fine example of that. This UNHCR campaign calls for 15% of refugees  having access to higher education by 2030. Helping students with limited opportunities access higher education has immense positive effects for everyone. It reduces the gaps between countries and guarantees a better future for all of us. As a business and economics graduate, I find what Benjamin Franklin once said is applicable always and everywhere: An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.


I feel an overwhelming gratitude for the people who made this journey possible. This includes the IIE team and every donor, who with their generosity and kindness have enabled so many ambitious students to pursue their dreams. How lovely and comforting it is to know that you are out there. It must be a wonderful feeling to know that you are changing lives, that you are writing the beginnings of new chapters. Thank you very much indeed for everything you do.