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IIT helps students escape Syrian war

Updated: November 9, 2012 6:12AM

For weeks last spring, Gerald Doyle expressed concern to his colleagues about the civil war in Syria and its horrific toll on innocent people.

In June, his preoccupation led the vice provost at the Illinois Institute of Technology to set in motion a plan to bring Syrian college students to the school within two months.

Doyle calls it local action for global impact.

“It just seemed like the higher-education community was unbelievably silent in terms of outreach,” he told me. “Throughout our history, as citizens of Chicago or around the globe, we know something is a problem but because we don’t know it personally, it’s like it’s invisible. Sometimes somebody has to act.”

To achieve Doyle’s goal, the university needed rapid execution and an international effort.

The complexity of IIT’s initiative cannot be understated. This type of project would take a year or longer to implement at most universities. Doyle said the school couldn’t wait that long.

The war in Syria escalates every day, and young men are constantly forced to join government or rebel forces. Neighborhoods are shattered in an instant. I can see why Doyle wanted to move quickly.

Doyle was confident IIT could pull this off because, two years ago, he networked internationally to enroll students from the impoverished island nation of Saint Lucia.

The South Side university, with high-caliber programs in science, technology, engineering and math, asked for help from Education USA, which is supported by a branch of the U.S. Department of State, and Jusoor, an international organization that supports educational and business endeavors for Syrians.

IIT and Jusoor started raising funds. While attending an event for Syrians at a local Islamic mosque, a stranger approached Doyle and said he wanted to write a “small” check.

“I was thinking $500 or $1,000,” Doyle said. “He wrote a check for $50,000. He said, ‘Look, I know at times that good ideas need a bit of a champion. Take this gift, go back to your team and tell them my family and I think you are doing brave and courageous work and to continue.’

“Every step of the way something like that happened. Somebody in Turkey, somebody in Saudi Arabia donated.”

More than 450 Syrian students expressed interest in IIT, said Megan Mozina, IIT’s assistant director for international outreach.

IIT has tough academic standards and specialized fields of study, but that didn’t stop unqualified students from trying.

“I think for some it was out of desperation,” Mozina told me.

To be considered, students had to speak English and excel in math and science. IIT narrowed the field of applicants to 130 and admitted 28, according to Mozina.

To secure student visas and enter the U.S., students needed to show they could cover tuition, room and board, travel and other expenses. That’s about $50,000 for IIT, which offered Syrian students $25,000 in aid, Mozina said. Jusoor also contributed.

Many of the Syrians needed some of their own funds. That was too tough for some. The value of Syria’s currency is dropping, and inflation is mind-boggling.

Half of the 28 students who were accepted could not secure full funding and were unable to make the trip.

“We’re concerned about it,” Mozina said. “The reality is that it’s hard to find more funding.”

The 14 who made it are thriving, Mozina told me. Next Monday, I will tell you about two students, a young man and woman, who made the journey and are now pursuing their dreams.

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