Would-be chemical engineer Rawan Batal learned Turkish and gained a university place in the central Anatolia province of Konya.
The armed men knocking at the door said they just wanted to talk about a problem. Rawan Batal, then 16, opened hesitantly. They pushed into the house and, once inside, became aggressive.
They accused her of robbery. Her denials made them angrier and they punched her in the face. They demanded $1,000.
Small and soft-spoken, Rawan might seem frail at first glance. However, she sat straight-backed and described the moments of terror in a matter-of-fact voice.
With the help of her mother, she gathered the cash and handed it over. They watched the soldiers leave. Convinced the men would return, Rawan, her mother and two younger siblings ran out of the house in Aleppo.
“We left everything behind,” Rawan said. “There was no time to grab anything. We had just the clothes we were wearing.”
Thus, on August 20, 2013, began Rawan’s life as a refugee. Her father and older brother had escaped conscription and were already on the run in a nearby province. Reunited, the family walked for several days, crossing into southeast Turkey. They now live in the city of Konya in the Anatolian Steppe.
Rawan, keen to return to some sense of normality, immediately wanted to go back to school. She was good at maths and science. Since childhood, she had wanted to become a chemical engineer. She missed her friends but she spoke no Turkish or English. There were no Arabic-speaking schools in Konya.
However, Rawan refused to be defeated. She found online books that followed the Syrian school curriculum and she studied by herself for hours every day.
“Many people told me I couldn’t do it on my own. But I wanted to study, and I did do it on my own.”
Over the last five years or so huge numbers of Syrian refugees, fleeing the war, have arrived in Turkey – more than 2.7 million, according to the Turkish authorities. Naturally, this impacted on the educational landscape.
In 2014, Rawan travelled to the Turkish capital, Ankara, where she took and passed her high school final exams. The Turkish government waives tuition fees for Syrian refugees applying to state universities, yet only 2.2 per cent of young Syrians have so far enrolled.
Many refugees need to work to help their families financially and like many refugees, Rawan’s biggest challenge was also the language. She needed to learn Turkish and pass a Turkish proficiency exam. She returned to the Internet.
“Without Turkish, it’s hard to study and it’s even harder to find a job,” she said. “Since the beginning, I have studied by myself. Many people told me I couldn’t do it on my own. But I wanted to study, and I did do it on my own.”
She found materials online and started studying Turkish as well as chemical engineering. Her brother, who had to give up studying to work, did not believe she could pull it off. However, her love for her subject is clear.
“Food, medicine, industry – everything starts with chemistry.”
“Everything in life is related to chemistry,” she said. “Food, medicine, industry – everything starts with chemistry.”
In 2015, she applied for and received a scholarship from UNHCR to attend a year-long, intensive Turkish language programme certified by Turkish TOMER, which is a recognized countrywide.
This programme is implemented by the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB) and helps high school graduates to meet the language proficiency requirements for admission to Turkish universities. Her Turkish now rolls fluently off her tongue. She has used it to volunteer, translating for Syrian refugees in hospitals and at the registration centers.
Rawan then applied to Konya’s Selcuk University. Still her friends were hesitant. Her father, an electronics engineer who had his own business in Syria but now works in a factory, did not believe she would get in. However, she did.
“My father was so very happy,” she said. “He went to work and bragged about me telling everybody ‘my daughter is going to study chemical engineering!’”
A report published by UNHCR last month highlighted a crisis in refugee education, in which more than half of the six million school-age children under its mandate have no school to go to.
It has now been three years since the armed thugs punched Rawan. She is now 19-years-old. She is one of 6,598 Syrian youth who applied in 2016 for the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative (DAFI), a German-funded and UNHCR-implemented scholarship. Rawan has been interviewed but the competition is tough.
In 2015, 5,800 Syrian applicants were received. The scholarship provides tuition and a monthly allowance. Due to the enormous need and interest for access to higher education programmes by Syrian refugees in Turkey, DAFI provided 820 scholarship places this year in Turkey. Rawan is not afraid of the road ahead.
“I wanted this so much,” she said. “I set my mind on it.