Dreams of flight: 3 Syrian refugee girls awarded scholarships in UK

More than a decade after fleeing Syria, ‘Squash Dreamers’ fight adversity to pursue education through summer courses abroad

From the left Amal Kanaan, Fatima Al-Abood and Heba Al-Horani. (Photo: Handout from Squash Dreamers)
AMMAN — Three Syrian students in Marka have recently been awarded two-week summer scholarships in the UK through Summer Boarding Courses, the country’s leading multicampus summer school program. The students — Heba Al-Horani, 14, Fatima Al-Abood, 13, and Amal Kanaan, 13 — have not left Jordan since fleeing war in Syria nearly a decade ago, making it their first-ever trip overseas. اضافة اعلان

The students are attendees of Squash Dreamers in Amman, a US-registered NGO dedicated to empowering Syrian refugee and underprivileged Jordanian girls through sports, education, and pastoral care. Three times a week, the students would learn English, how to play squash, and receive one-on-one support from the organization’s staff for any schoolwork.

Daisy Hill, the executive director of Squash Dreamers, helped the students submit the scholarship applications, emphasizing that they were determined to access challenging educational opportunities and shape their future for the better.

A strained school systemThe girls regularly attend school in the morning or the afternoon for two to five hours a day, making it difficult for them to attain a thorough education. Abood, who will be studying English at Oxford Brookes University’s Headington Campus, explained, “I don’t like the teachers in my school. They’re so, so bad.”

Kanaan, who is also studying English at Oxford Brookes, added, “I respect my teachers, but they are always screaming, and I don’t really learn a lot because of that.”

Kanaan said that money was the biggest obstacle for girls like her in accessing high quality education. “Because we’re Syrian, we didn’t come here with enough money. We get loans from the bank or friends, but you have to have a lot of money. You have to work so hard to get the money.”

“Life in Jordan is so hard,” she said.

Roughly 80 percent of Jordan’s Syrian refugee population fall below the country’s poverty line, with around 60 percent of Syrian families living in extreme poverty.

Only 15 to 21 percent of eligible Syrian students are enrolled in secondary school. As a result, many girls in their communities leave education behind and often marry very young, with the rate of marriage for Syrian refugee girls under 18 having risen from 13 percent to 36 percent over the last 10 years.

Bureaucratic barriers Horani — who is planning to study art, design, and English at Rochester Independent College — views bureaucracy as one of the biggest problems for Syrians seeking an education. She explained, “You have to have tons of papers to register, and many people won’t be nice to you. The first time I came to school here, there was a lot of discrimination, but it’s better now.”

Despite receiving scholarships to England, there is still no guarantee that the Syrian government will provide the students with Syrian passports to permit travelling overseas. It would cost $825 for the girls to receive passports in time to pursue their scholarships, which is more than what their families make in months.

The window at the Syrian Embassy in Amman that deals with passport applications is manned by one employee and closes after 12pm.

Syrian refugees in Jordan must provide extensive documentation, with people from all over Jordan — including the three students and their parents — waiting by the embassy early in the morning to secure their place.

After waiting by the window since 6am, the girls were initially turned away by the embassy for not having physically processed documentation from Damascus or any family living in Syria. The girls are currently waiting on an exit and re-entry document that would permit them to legally exit and return to Jordan as refugees.

Dreams of flight Horani said that the taxing passport application process only elevates the anticipation of leaving Jordan for the first time. She is also excited to fly overseas and improve her art skills, adding, “There have been many difficult things in my life, but art has always made them better.”

Kanaan is also eager to fly overseas, saying, “I didn’t see the sea in so long, but I love the sea.” Abood recounted that she “always dreamed to travel” and is “excited to be somewhere that people know another language, to see other people — new people.”

The girls also expressed anxiety and fear over travelling abroad, with Horani admitting, “It’s scary.”

Growing optimism Despite their fears, the students remain optimistic that the scholarship will help improve their chances to attend university in Jordan, where nearly all higher education courses are taught in English. Abood said, “I want to study psychology because I want to help girls and boys like me in Syria, Jordan, and England.”

She also expressed her desire to give every girl in Jordan a chance to travel and study abroad, adding, “I hope the girls at Squash Dreamers, my friends, and any girl here gets to travel, and to tell them that if they want to go to England too, or if they have a dream, you can do it.”

Horani added, “I hope for everyone in the world that they will get an opportunity like this.”

Kanaan hopes to become a translator and doctor, but said that she is excited for the bragging rights of travelling abroad regardless. “If anyone in the future asks me, ‘Did you ever travel or see anything in the world,’ I can say yes, I went to Britain and I saw the sea and Big Ben,” she said.

Contingent on proper documentation, visas, and passports, Horani is set to travel to the UK on July 22, 2023 with Abood and Kanaan following on August 13.

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