Syrian Youth Empowerment
Lizzie Edwards, SVR Volunteer Member, interview with
George Batah, Co-Founder of Syrian Youth Empowerment
March 23, 2021
Syrian Youth Empowerment Initiative (SYE) is a 501(c)3 organization that envisions a world in which all students from conflict zones have the opportunity to pursue their dreams of higher education, regardless of barriers posed by conflict. They support Syrian and (on a pilot program) Iraqi students with navigating all aspects of applying to university. They partner the students with a mentor, prepare them for different components of applications such as standardized testing and essays, and work with the students to help them secure full scholarships from the universities they are applying to. George talked about how the mentor-mentee relationships are important to SYE. A lot of their mentors started by reviewing essays for our students. And then, after a year or two, they became mentors. A number of previous participants also returned to SYE after graduating to become mentors themselves.
The goal of SYE is to make higher education more accessible for Syrian and Iraq by addressing a number of barriers that exist. One, it is difficult for students to get visas because of current immigration policies. Many times, their students get full scholarships, but the visa fees become very difficult. A second barrier is that there are a lack of higher education opportunities in Syria and Iraq. A third barrier is infrastructure challenges. For example, in Syria, there's only one center that conducts offline SAT, and that is in Damascus. All the students who want to take that test have to go to Damascus, which is very risky at times. For online tests, the internet connection of many of the students is unreliable and certain applications such as Zoom have been blocked in Syria at times. A fourth barrier is the cost of the SAT and the TOEFL. SYE addresses that barrier by covering all the test costs. A fifth barrier is the American college application system itself. George mentioned, “In the United States, it’s about your dreams and your background and how the events that happened in the past shaped you as a person. This makes it particularly challenging for students who do not necessarily have the resources or the cultural background to know how to navigate it on their own.” SYE addresses this barrier by explaining different components of college applications. Finally, George advises college communities to talk to people on the ground of conflict areas because they can tell them exactly what needs to be done and what is missing, and what they need.
Participants are selected through an application process that consists of an online application and interview. To make the process equitable, SYE gives underrepresented students more points based on specific metrics. The program ends when the participants get admission and a scholarship to a university. Over 300 students have completed SYE programs, including Ralph, who just graduated from Harvard in 2021, thanks to the support from SYE mentors. Ralph (SYE Class of 2014/2015) says:
“Students from war-torn countries can offer a lot to the world too. They are an untapped source of innovation, opportunity, and talent. The circumstances we go through must not be perceived as a reason for disadvantage, but one for resilience and strength. We thrive in our communities, for we have learned to cherish those we can lose. We thrive in our studies, for they empower us to empower others by making the difference we needed ourselves not too long ago, at home.”
Learn more from one of SYE Scholarship recipient here
Meet SVR Volunteer, Lizzie Edwards
Lizzie Edwards, SVR Volunteer, Working Group 1
Lizzie Edwards (she/her) is a senior at Wesleyan University. She is majoring in Anthropology and Environmental Studies and minoring in Middle Eastern Studies. She currently serves as Co-President for Wesleyan Refugee Project, a student group that partners with local refugee resettlement agencies as well as domestic and international non-profits. She has interned with several organizations, including the resettlement office of Jewish Family Service of San Diego and Reclaim Childhood, a peacebuilding organization which provides programming to Jordanian and refugee youth.