Shehab, a 22-year-old Syrian student, poses proudly in front of a statue of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, at the entrance to Haceteppe University in Ankara.
A refugee from the city of Aleppo, he is in the second year of a health sciences degree course and is the recipient of a German-funded DAFI scholarship.
The Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative Fund scholarships, known by the German acronym DAFI, are funded by the German government. Launched in 1992, they provide for young refugees to study at universities, colleges and polytechnics in their host countries. There are 75 DAFI scholars in Turkey, of whom 70 are Syrian.
Shebab’s family still lives in Aleppo and he last saw them in August 2014. “My parents pushed me so hard to leave Aleppo”, he said. “I had to choose between danger and a safe place where I can study.
“My brother is older than me and has finished his military service. If I hadn’t left, I would have been forced to do military service too as so many soldiers have died in the war.”
He stays in touch with his family via the Internet, a link that is occasionally interrupted because of the war. “Last year, they bombed the technology centre in Aleppo and there was no internet for eight months. It is back now”.
For personal reasons, Shehab is specialising in physiotherapy and rehabilitation. When he was 14, the family had a car accident near Aleppo and his father broke his leg. “I used to go with him and watched how they made him walk again.”
As a result, he wanted to study physiotherapy, but the subject was not taught in Syria.
The DAFI scholarship, which helps refugees worldwide to access higher education, has made it possible for him to do so and he is profoundly grateful.
“In my first year, my parents supported me and I used to feel so guilty taking money from them in a situation of war,” he said. “My father is old now and does not work. Now, with the scholarship this year, I can focus on my studies and I don’t worry about the money any more. My family is happy and relieved.”
For the 2016-17 academic year, Germany will offer a total of 1,700 scholarships over four years for Syrian students in the Middle East. One thousand of these will be in Turkey, making it the country with the most DAFI scholars.
Another DAFI scholar, 20-year-old Mahmoud, is in his first year at Ankara University, studying engineering. His family is also from Aleppo, but had to move to Gaziantep in south-eastern Turkey. They fled because of the constant bombing and because he would have been forced to fight.
“I have always wanted to study engineering, though my family wanted me to do medicine,” he said.
He dreams of a future where natural gas will replace oil. “I have heard about a new project where natural gas will provide clean energy … I want to be able to work in this too, that is my dream.”
He said he would not have been able to finance his studies without the scholarship.
At the picturesque campus of Harran University in Sanliurfa, south-eastern Turkey, Dua, Geyda and Raanya are studying public administration, economics and food engineering respectively.
Geyda, 20, is in the second year of an economics degree. Her family is from Hama, and she tells a harrowing tale of her flight.
“I was waiting outside our home when the bombs started,” she said. “I jumped on my brother, who was just two years old then, to save him but I hurt my stomach and my hand.”
She had to have 20 stiches in her stomach and the hospital where she was being treated was also bombed and they had to finish off the stiches in the street. “We left as soon as we could.”
They came to Turkey three years ago and her family lives in Harran camp. She is the eldest of five children.
At first, she had to commute from the camp to classes, a journey of an-hour-and-a-half, and was often late. Thanks to the scholarship, she now shares a flat just 15 minutes away from the campus, visiting her family at weekends.
She hopes to work in a bank or for a private company as an accountant, preferably in Ankara.
“It’s a beautiful city, and is the capital. We have relatives there and there are job opportunities.”
Nineteen-year-old Raanya came to Turkey with her family from Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria three years ago. She lives with them in Sanliurfa.
Raanya is in the first year of her food engineering degree. “I want to be able to go back to Syria when I graduate and work as a professional in food and nutrition,” she said. “I want to be able to contribute to the nutrition and health of my country by working as a food engineer in a factory.”
The DAFI scholarship has enabled her to achieve her dreams. “If there was no scholarship, my family would not have been able to afford an education for me,” she said.
Dua,18, is from Aleppo and also lives with her family in Sanliurfa. She is in the first year of a public administration course. The subject is not taught in Syria and she read about it on the Internet.
With the scholarship, she was able to buy books and look forward to a future: “I dream of a society with equal rights and equal opportunities for all,” she said.
She hopes she can go back and work in public administration where she can help create the society she envisions.
Yousef is from Damascus and is in the first year of an environmental engineering degree at the Middle Eastern Technical University (METU) in Ankara, one of Turkey’s best universities.
“I am really, really lucky,” the 25-year-old said. “I am so proud to be here. METU is the best thing that has happened for me.
“I feel safe and am grateful to be supported by the scholarship. A university opens so many doors and a lot of different areas to work in, in the future.
“I could become an engineer, an academic, even a political activist. There are so many possibilities and these four years will shape what I become.”
Like Shehab, his family – his parents and two brothers — are still in Syria. Yousef last saw them three years ago, although they keep in touch through Skype.
“”The situation is hard, and they just want the war to finish. Our Syrian cities have become battlefields, and its very hard to think about your family living in that situation,” he said.
“You see the whole country falling apart, you see your people walking to Europe.”
The DAFI scholarships give hope to these young people, protecting them from the realities of war and paying for an education they would otherwise be denied.
“No war will continue forever,” Shehab said. “I want to open my own clinic in Aleppo when I graduate. This is my biggest dream.”
By Nayana Bose, in Ankara and Sanliurfa, Turkey