Zakat Foundation of America is working to fill the dire need of Syrian refugees for educational institutions in the wake of their country’s civil war. By working closely with Turkish authorities, the Chicago-based, Muslim humanitarian organization has established Zahra University, one of the first universities committed solely to serving the refugee population.
Located in Gaziantep, Turkey – just 75 miles from war-torn Aleppo – and using Arabic as the language of instruction, Zahra is one of the first universities committed exclusively to serving young Syrian refugees. Offering courses in computer science, economics and management, education, languages and literature, and theology, the university currently serves 282 students and aims to be a pillar of support in future efforts to rebuild Syrian society following the ongoing devastation of the war.
While tens of thousands of displaced Syrians have joined refugees from other countries in the historic mass exodus to Europe of recent months, the vast majority are not able to afford the risky journey north. These displaced families remain behind, either in the surrounding countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, or in Syria itself. These millions are now effectively a stateless people, without resources, support, or institutions of their own.
According to UNICEF, more than half of the ten million people who have been displaced by the Syrian conflict are children, with young people aged 15-24 representing the largest demographic group within the refugee population. Without real prospects for education, stability, and security, these young adults are likely to feel helpless, frustrated, and eventually angry, making them vulnerable to appeals from extremists. A solid foundation of institutional support will be essential for providing a sense of groundedness and stability in an otherwise chaotic environment.
According to education specialist Dr. Farid Panjwani, education and economic opportunity have an indispensable role to play in addressing the roots of extremism. Through its partnership with the Turkish authorities in Gaziantep, Zakat Foundation is establishing a model of cooperation between western NGOs and government agencies that can offer a lifeline to the millions who have been uprooted by regional wars for re-entering the security and stability of civil society.