Syrian Artist Seeks College Education From an Unexpected Place

A crowdfunding platform is working to connect students with universities in a Western European nation.
(Photo: Courtesy Ahmad Alabdullah)
Apr 2, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Ahmad Alabdullah was a sophomore studying fine arts at Aleppo University when the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011. With the city divided into government- and rebel-controlled sections, simply walking to school became a perilous journey. Alabdullah regularly saw women and children killed in the streets and snipers hiding out in high-rise buildings on his way to class.

“Life could come to an end in a split of a second in a city divided into two opposing camps by the road that led to my college,” he wrote of his experience. “I’d say farewell to my family every morning as if it is the last time I’d see them.”

Alabdullah eventually fled Aleppo and now lives in Turkey with his family, working several jobs to make ends meet. But he still has high hopes for his education, with his sights set on earning a Ph.D. in animation from the University of Porto in Portugal. Alabdullah is one of several students featured on the crowdfunding site Iduka, which is working to connect refugees with higher education in Portugal.

(Illustration: Ahmad Alabdullah)

Other refugees featured on Iduka include a Palestinian-Syrian woman hoping to earn her master’s degree in architecture and a young man who fixes smartphones in Lebanon after being forced to abandon his dreams of obtaining a Ph.D. in computer science in Syria.

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Portugal isn’t exactly a popular choice among refugees looking for a new place to call home, with the majority opting for northern European nations, such as Germany or Sweden. Fewer than 1,000 refugees applied for asylum in Portugal last year.

Artist Ahmad Alabdullah. (Photo: Courtesy Ahmad Alabdullah)

Portugal’s economy has struggled to recover from the global financial crisis of 2008, with unemployment at 12 percent. Of the 10 million people living in Portugal, nearly half a million have emigrated in the past four years, the AFP reports. Now Portuguese officials are actively encouraging refugees to resettle in the small Western European country to help replenish the country’s dwindling workforce and pump up the economy. In February, Prime Minister António Costa pledged to accept 10,000 refugees, with 2,000 spots reserved specifically for university students.

That pledge makes Iduka founder Miguel Martim confident that the students featured on his site will be able to obtain student visas. Having funds for a year’s worth of living expenses should cinch the deal.

“Funding is critical in order to start the process,” Martim wrote in an email to TakePart. “We need to show the Portuguese authorities proof of sufficient resources to support students financially throughout their stay in Portugal.”

All the students are seeking €7,000 ($7,966) to jump-start their educational aspirations. Thanks to Portugal’s low cost of living, that’s enough to cover a year of tuition and living expenses. The average Portuguese university charges between €950 to €1,250 ($1,050 to $1,422) per year for bachelor’s and master’s programs, but the collegiate hopefuls may not even have to pay full price.

“There are quite a few universities that have already expressed interest in enrolling refugee students, and some may be willing to drastically cut or abolish tuition and admission fees altogether,” Martim explained. Iduka has partnered with the organization Refugees Welcome, which offers a collaborative residence where students can live together and learn Portugal’s language and customs.

“Our goal is to go beyond the financial assistance and implement a comprehensive program for refugee students who want to study in Portugal in order to guarantee their social, cultural, academic, and economic integration in our society,” Martim said.

But despite the plans for integration, many of the students profiled on Iduka still hope to take their talents back to Syria when the conflict there ends.

“I believe that the art centers in Syria will need huge planning and renovation work [to get] back to life again,” Alabdullah explains in his Iduka profile. “I’m planning to work on bringing back the art and culture in my society, which have been discontinued because of the war.”

(Illustration: Ahmad Alabdullah)