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Syria: crises limit access to English language testing

Students living in Syria are facing barriers when applying to university courses and scholarships abroad, because of problems accessing English tests.
November 2 2020
3 Min Read

Prospective international students living in Syria are facing barriers when applying to university courses and scholarships abroad, because of limited access to English proficiency tests, according to students and an NGO. 

A combination of sanctions against Syria that limit online provision, restriction of movement caused by the pandemic, and a lack of testing centres in the country have reduced the options students have to take tests. 

“A lot of our students are preparing to take the IELTs to study at international universities”

While ETS is offering its TOEFL iBT Special Home Edition test to students in Syria, other organisations such as IELTS and Duolingo are not able to offer tests, The PIE News has found.

“Our largest program is our English program, and so a lot of our students are preparing to take the IELTs to study at international universities,” said Gabby Wimer, managing director of Paper Airplanes, an NGO that works with conflict affected students in the Middle East.

Wimer explained that there is only one test centre open in the country, a written TOEFL test in Damascus, meaning that students normally have to go to other countries to be assessed.

“For the students in Syria they always have to go to Beirut, but now the border is closed because of Covid-19, and so they aren’t able to travel to take the IELTS,” she said. 

According to Wimer, students are often unable to take tests online, as sanctions prevent companies from offering services in Syria. 

“The students I am working with are just trying to petition the admissions committees [at universities] and scholarships committees to reevaluate, or to at least postpone their requirements, so that they have a bit more time for the border to hopefully open up… or for there to be some changes to the sanctions,” she said. 

The PIE contacted IELTS and Duolingo, and both organisations confirmed that their proficiency tests are not available to students in Syria.

“Unfortunately, IELTS is not available in Syria at the moment. We request interested test takers to take the test in neighbouring countries,” a spokesperson for IELTS told The PIE.

Sam Dalsimer, head of PR at Duolingo, confirmed that Duolingo isn’t able to offer services to Syrian students.

“As a company based in the US, Duolingo is required to comply with all applicable laws, including US sanctions that restrict transactions or dealings with Syria.

“We are actively working with our legal counsel and doing everything we can to change this as soon as possible,” he said.

According to Dalsimer, Duolingo has requested authorisation from the US government to administer the Duolingo English Test to people in Syria.

“Our goal with the Duolingo English Test is to reduce barriers to higher education and make it easier for international students to certify their English proficiency. We want nothing more than to ensure that our product is accessible around the world to everyone who needs it,”Dalsimer added.

“Education is essential for Syrians”

Tareq Layka, a Syrian student, questioned the sense of sanctions that excluded Syrians from education.

“Education is essential for Syrians…The whole experience of studying abroad would equip you with a lot of skills and knowledge so that you could contribute in one way or another in the rebuilding of the country,” he told The PIE.

“It makes me feel terrible…You really want to study abroad. You think you have the skills, the experience, but because of certain events that happened altogether, you can’t do it and you have nothing to do with it. It’s just how it works,” he said.

A spokesperson for the US Department of the Treasury told The PIE that US for-profit entities are generally prohibited from providing educational services to individuals in Syria unless exempt or authorised by OFAC.

“License applications may be submitted to OFAC, and are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.  Treasury does not comment on particular license applications, including to confirm whether one exists,” they said.

Students can visit ETS’ website for more information on the TOEFL iBT Special Home Edition test.

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