In a busy neighborhood in Istanbul, 27-year-old Majd wanders among the Syrian-owned shawarma shops and crowded cafes, with a leather portfolio tucked under his right arm.
It’s been just one week since he fled Damascus, Syria, for Turkey, to avoid being drafted into the military. His portfolio holds what he believes will be his ticket to a strong future: a bachelor’s degree in economics from Damascus University.
More than 3.5 million Syrians have found refuge in Turkey, many of them youth who’ve been forced to delay or forgo their education.
He always carries it with him, he says in Arabic.
“I came here to finish my master’s program in economics,” he said, dressed in khaki pants and a crisp white button-down.
Majd – whose last name Marketplace is not disclosing to protect his family – was in the middle of a master’s program when he fled Syria. In Istanbul, he reunited with two of his childhood friends, also Syrian, who’ve been living in Turkey for a few years now.
They’ve offered to help him, but beyond that Majd said he’s not sure where to go or who to talk to about completing his master’s degree. He also hasn’t had much luck finding a job.
“I thought I’d find more opportunities here, but I didn’t realize just how difficult it’d be,” he said.
Majd is among more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees who’ve been displaced by the ongoing violence in their country and found refuge in Turkey.
Before the war, about 25 percent of college-aged Syrians from urban and rural areas were enrolled in universities, which are heavily subsidized by the government. The ratio of men to women was also roughly equal.
But in Turkey, thousands of university-age Syrian refugees have been forced to delay or forgo their education because of the difficulties they face navigating the Turkish education system.
In 2014, there were fewer than 2,000 Syrian students in Turkish universities and most of them were men, according to the Turkish Higher Education Council. Today, close to 20,000 Syrian students are enrolled.
“Even though the situation has improved compared to three or four years ago, there are still a lot of Syrian students who should be continuing their higher education and they’re not,” said Melissa Abache, global engagement manager at Koç University.
The most common challenges Syrians face are language barriers, lack of official documents and financial obstacles. Many Syrians are required to spend at least a year learning Turkish before they can take classes toward a degree. And often they don’t have good information about their options.
“When they first arrive, many don’t have access to proper guidance,” Abache said. “They think the only options are private universities, which are expensive and offer courses in English.”
In recent years, some universities – especially private ones – have provided more resources to help Syrians. In addition to Arabic-speaking counselors, they’ve started translating their application materials into Arabic.
Still, thousands of Syrians – like 23-year-old Othman Nahhas – don’t attend or finish college because they need to support their families instead.
Like Majd, Nahhas left Syria to avoid being drafted in the military. At 17, he joined an uncle in Belgium and began studying computer science until his father, who had fled to Istanbul, was unable to find work as a doctor.
To help his family pay the rent, Nahhas dropped out of college and moved to Istanbul to teach English. In his spare time, he’d watch stand-up routines of his favorite comedians, like Dave Chappelle and Ellen DeGeneres, and eventually he began performing comedy himself.
“I was inspired by DeGeneres’s stand up special, ‘Here and Now,’” he said. “She makes a joke about procrastinating, which made me stop procrastinating and actually do it.”
He realized that he could pull a lot of material from his own life and experiences as a Syrian refugee.
One of his favorite jokes is based on the cheesy chase scenes you often see in romantic comedies, where one person dashes through a crowded airport, for instance, in a mad frenzy to catch up with the love of their life, before it’s too late.
“I love that scene,” he said to a crowd in Istanbul. “I was watching a movie the other day and I was like ‘what if that dude was Syrian?’ Sixty percent of the movie would be in the visa office, running from office to office, in slow motion.”
Nahhas, who also works as an actor, said he makes just enough each month to cover his rent and half his parents’ rent. Even so, his mother isn’t thrilled with his career choice.
“She says ‘you’re throwing your life away. Why are you doing this? What are you going to do when you’re old?’” he said.
Nahhas said that used to bother him, but now it doesn’t faze him; he’d rather keep pursuing comedy than save up to go back to college.
That’s not the case for Yasmine Bakjaji – she’s been pursuing her bachelor’s degree now for eight years.
26-year-old Yasmine Bakjaji, a Syrian refugee, has been pursuing her bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering for about eight years now.
“I’m 26 now, I should’ve graduated when I was like 23,” Bakjaji said.
Bakjaji was two years away from graduating college in Aleppo, when she was arrested for protesting the Syrian government. Fearing for her safety, her parents sent her to Turkey to finish her degree in environmental engineering. But, first, she had to learn to speak Turkish, which took about a year.
She has one semester left before she graduates – that’s if her credits transfer to Canada. Her family’s immigrating to Montreal soon.
“So, I’ll have to study for a couple of more years,” she said. “If you think about it a lot, you’ll just get depressed, so I don’t like to think much about it.”
This report was made possible through the International Center for Journalists’ Bringing Home the World Fellowship.