Written by Wilbert van Saane*
Hovannes (not his real name) is an ambitious young man (19) from Beirut. His dream is to become a licensed auditor. To that end, he wants to pursue a bachelor’s degree in accounting. Unfortunately, his family is in financial dire straits, after the long sickbed and death of his father.
Hovannes and his siblings work odd jobs to keep the family adrift. There is barely any money for tuition. Yet Hovannes insists on getting a degree. ‘I don’t want to stay a loser all my life.’
It is people like Hovannes who benefit from the financial aid program at Haigazian University. Accessibility of education is a core value of the Beirut-based liberal arts college. In fact, its vision statement opens by saying that ‘Haigazian University offers quality education at a fair and affordable cost’. The university grants a total of around US $ 1,130,000 per annum, which is much for a small not-for-profit institution with an operational budget of around US $ 6,000,000.
One of the objectives of Haigazian’s financial aid program is to help redress the widespread socio-economic inequality in the Middle East, where many do not have access to higher education. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that ‘everyone has the right to education’, also stipulates that ‘education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages’ and ‘higher education shall be equally accessible on the basis of merit’.
Unfortunately, access to education is increasingly problematic in the region. Due to corruption, instability and violence, many young people go without proper schooling. A recent UNICEF report estimates that 13 million children in the Middle East and North Africa are deprived of education because of conflicts. All levels are affected: elementary, secondary, vocational and higher education.
Many refugee families in the region are unable to afford tuition fees and keep their children home. The results are catastrophic. The lack of education leads to deepening poverty and faster population growth. It also enhances radicalism, which in turn breeds xenophobia and the scapegoating of refugee communities.
Haigazian University seeks to counter such trends by welcoming an increasing number of Syrian students. Currently, around 40 students from Syria are registered, which amounts to 5 % of the student body. In many cases, the families of these students were forced to move from Syria. They live off their savings or depend on charity; they can allocate very little for tuition. For that reason, Haigazian University has established a special scholarship fund for Syrian students to supplement the regular financial aid.
The Syrian students prove to be highly motivated and socially engaged. The war has deprived them and their families of much, but not of their determination to build a better future. More than anybody else, they understand that they and their families are lost without education, and that their country has no future without education. Therefore, they work hard to overcome the obstacles that come with loss and migration. Their positive attitude creates goodwill. There has been a growing commitment among Haigazian University staff, faculty and students to welcome Syrians.
In a sense, the battle for survival in times of crisis, forced migration and poverty are in Haigazian’s DNA. The Armenian Protestant community that established the University in 1955 was made up of children of survivors of the Armenian Genocide. Their survivor-parents had found refuge in Lebanon, gradually emancipated themselves and gained the respect of the Lebanese by their honesty and hard work. They placed the capstone on that process by establishing an institution for higher learning and naming it after Armenag Haigazian (1870-1921), a Genocide victim who had spent his life in the service of education of the Armenian community.
It is, therefore, no surprise that, from the outset, making education affordable and accessible has been a major concern of Haigazian University. The willingness of its staff and faculty to go the second mile has yielded much fruit over the years. At the 2015 commencement, Samir Hammoud, chairperson of the Banking Control Commission of Lebanon, related how Haigazian University made it possible for him to complete his degree: ‘I myself was not able to afford paying the tuition, had I not worked. Also I was not able to attend classes had the courses been given in the morning only. Haigazian gave me the chance to work and study and reach a day similar to this day to commence and see the doors wide open to me.’
In partial compensation for received financial aid, students are asked to work up to five hours a week. The principle behind this – hard work pays off – was repeatedly tested during the history of the University. Hence the motto of the 60th anniversary, celebrated this year: ‘Pride in Merit’. At the 2015 commencement President Paul Haidostian explained: ‘That means, your pride should be based on hard work, ethics, and vision, and not on connections, majority pressure, religious, social or family privileges as we see in our societies.’
Haigazian University emphasizes not only academic quality, but also character formation, ethics and respect for diversity. This is much needed in today’s Middle East. Students like Hovannes receive not only a thorough academic training, but also an experience in peaceful coexistence. This prepares them to be change-makers. It is enterprising people like Hovannes who hold the keys to the future of the Middle East. The Haigazian community of which he is a part models what that future may be like.
*Wilbert van Saane is the chaplain and the chairperson of the financial aid committee at Haigazian University. He is a graduate of Utrecht University and an ordained minister of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands.