Turkish entrepreneur aims for university for Syrian refugees

By Mehmet Guzel, Suzan Fraser and Diaa Hadid

At a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey, 19-year-old Usame Isa dreams of studying engineering. But Isa doesn't speak Turkish well enough to pass the language proficiency test required for entry at state universities.

He is not alone. Many of the 1.6 million Syrians in Turkey after fleeing their country's civil war do not speak Turkish and cannot afford language classes, said Metin Corabatir, who heads the Ankara-based Research Center on Asylum and Migration.

"Students should be able to study in the language they wish, but here we have to learn Turkish," Isa said at the Nizip camp near Turkey's southern city of Gaziantep. "I am trying to learn."

A Turkish education entrepreneur has ambitious plans to address this problem. He hopes to raise funds to start a Turkish university for Syrian refugees, with classes held in Arabic and English in addition to Turkish. "I really believe that we have to educate these young people," the entrepreneur, Enver Yucel, told The Associated Press in a recent interview in New York, where he was receiving an education award. "If we cannot educate these young people, they will be a big problem both for Turkey and for their own country — for the whole region."

Yucel envisions several small campuses in Turkish cities close to Syria, including Gaziantep. The first one would be located in Hatay and, he hopes, would start in the 2015-16 academic year with 1,500 students if he gets the required government approvals. He proposes employing 400 Syrian faculty members who are also refugees.

Yucel said the Syrian students would not be able to pay tuition so he will appeal to governments, foundations and individuals to support the university. He estimated the cost at $51 million the first year, increasing to $290 million in the fifth year when he envisions the university growing to 5,500 students. He said he will personally contribute about $9.5 million the first year.

"There is a potential to grow this up to 20,000 students," Yucel said.

Although the task seems huge, Yucel has a proven track record. He heads the Bahcesehir Educational Group, which includes a chain of private K-12 schools with 30,000 students at 55 campuses in Turkey, and Bahcesehir University in Istanbul. The group also has satellite campuses in Toronto, Washington, Silicon Valley, Berlin, Cologne, Hong Kong and Rome — and a newly accredited university in Washington called BAU International University.

"It's only through education that we can change a person's life," Yucel said, "and I believe one person could change the world."

Syria's civil war has denied a generation of its children an education, and adolescents hoping to enter university appear to be among the most harshly affected. Many have missed years of schooling and are under pressure to help financially support their families. They are unlikely to find support for their education in countries where they seek refuge because donors tend to focus on Syria's youngest children, leaving teenagers and those poised to enter university behind.

Turkey has made it possible for Syrians to register at Turkish state universities without taking highly competitive entrance exams or submitting papers to prove they finished high school. The language requirement, however, is proving to be a big obstacle.

"The Turkish universities take too few Syrian students," said Besar al-Suved, a history teacher at the Nizip refugee camp who left Syria two years ago. "The reason is that the Turkish language is a problem and many can't pay the university fees."

He said language classes are offered at the camp five hours each week, but that "if there is an Arabic university, they would get a better education and have better lives."

Syrians have also fled to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, but unlike Turkey, the dominant language in those countries is Arabic.

"The language barrier is an important problem," Corabatir, the Ankara researcher, told AP last week. "When one day these people return to Syria, there must not be a lost generation. There will be a need for a generation of people capable of rebuilding the country."

Isa, the 19-year-old, hopes to be one of them. "I want to be an engineer," he said. "If the war ends in Syria, there will be a need for engineers."