When Sana Mustafa left Syria for a six-week exchange programme with the US government in June 2013 she had no idea that she would not be returning to her home country. But, 10 days after her arrival in the US, her father, a political and human rights activist, was taken from his home by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Ms Mustafa was studying business and marketing at a Syrian university. But she said that going back to the country to complete her studies was “never an option”.
“When you get detained, the regime uses the women in the family to put pressure on the men. They rape them. They torture them in front of their men, to get them to confess,” she told Times Higher Education.
Her mother and two sisters, who were in Syria at the time of the detention, were smuggled to Turkey, she added.
It was not the first time that her father had been detained; he was taken for two months both in 2006 and 2011. Ms Mustafa and her sister were also locked up in 2011, for two and five days respectively.
“My experience of being detained was in the early days of the revolution, so things were better. We did not get raped, but we got interrogated, harassed, beaten up,” she said. “When [my father] got detained in 2013, things were, and still are, in a very chaotic situation. A lot of detainees get tortured to death. I can’t even imagine his situation.”
She said it has been “1,007 days” since she has heard anything about her father or known of his whereabouts.
Ms Mustafa said that she spent her first 18 months in the US “trying to survive”, taking on restaurant, au pair and Arabic tutoring jobs “just to provide food and shelter”. She lived in nine different houses during that period, “moving between people’s couches”.
But in 2014 she was granted political asylum and “started looking for opportunities to continue my education”.
She said that she first discovered the Institute of International Education (IIE) on Facebook, and she got in touch with the organisation when it posted about its Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis, an alliance of universities and colleges that provide scholarships for Syrian students whose education has been disrupted by the conflict. After submitting an application, she was matched with Bard College in New York, to study political science for two years. She will graduate in December.
“They told me, this school is offering one scholarship for one Syrian student. I am still now the only Syrian student at my school,” she said.
Earlier this month, the IIE announced a new round of Emergency Student Fund grants to help 52 students from Syria and 39 students from Yemen who are enrolled at US universities but are financially struggling to complete their degrees.
Ms Mustafa said that many US universities “were very strict with their requirements for enrolment” but that Bard College was “very flexible”, and accepted several of her credits from Syria. But despite their support, she said that studying at a US university was “challenging at first”.
“I cried on my first day there. Suddenly I was taking highly intense political science classes and the language was very academic, different from that in television shows,” she said.
However, she said that she is now “doing really well”, which “motivates me to keep going”.
She said that the educational system in Syria is “based on who you know, what family you come from, and what class you are”, meaning that “even if you work hard, you might not have the chance to achieve what someone who doesn’t work that hard but has connections with the government can achieve”.
Ms Mustafa added that in Syria students attend lectures and have to “memorise everything” and “you don’t really have a chance to think”.
“Here, it is the opposite,” she said. “In Syria, I did not achieve success academically as I did here, even though in Syria it could be easier than it is here. In Syria, I would work a lot but not really achieve outcomes.”
She said that her mother and younger sister are still in Turkey and last week her older sister “made it to Germany”: "So we are in Turkey, Germany and the US, and my dad should be in Syria, if he’s alive."
She said that she is going to apply for both postgraduate courses and jobs ahead of her graduation later this year, but that she is “not limited to a geographic place” and her plans will “depend on my family situation”.
Her experience at a US university has given her “these options” and meant that she doesn’t want to “limit myself to anything”, she explained.
“I would not have had these options without the scholarship,” she said. “I knew I could never move forward to do something in this country without having the education. That was a very important choice in my life.”