Fatima was in year 8 when the war began in Syria. Her school was turned into a military base and she was forced to walk 30 minutes to the only other school nearby. But despite the risks, Fatima was determined to continue her education.

“I would run to school under open fire, in order to ask about certain things that I didn’t understand,” she says.

As the crisis worsened, Fatima and her family were forced to flee to Lebanon in 2012 where she began year 10 with little knowledge of English or science.

“It was hard to adjust at the beginning, but I managed,” Fatima says.

“My classmates and even teachers made fun of me for not understanding English. This pushed me to learn and eventually I could understand sciences as well.”

Only 1% of refugee youth will reach university. Forced to flee their homes, young refugees face many barriers to accessing higher education in their host countries such as language, transport and tuition fees.

Higher education is a priority for UNHCR and forms an integral part of its protection and solutions mandate.

Twenty-one-year old Fatima was accepted into UNHCR's higher education scholarship program. © UNHCR/A. Tardy 

After completing high school, Fatima was accepted into UNHCR’s higher education scholarship program, DAFI (Albert Einstein Academic Refugee Initiative), to study a Bachelor’s degree in Physics.

The DAFI program enables refugees worldwide to access higher education. Since its inception in 1992, more than 14,000 refugee students have completed undergraduate degrees in various disciplines across the arts and sciences.

“DAFI has given me the opportunity to push myself farther than I can imagine and overcome all the obstacles that were ahead of me,” Fatima says.

Even though women have made tremendous progress towards increasing their participation in higher education, they are still underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

The International Day for Women and Girls in Science on 11 February is dedicated to advocating for and supporting their participation in science and technology. The day is about inspiring more women and girls to pursue education and employment in the science fields.

“Because of the war in Syria, I did not attend many of the classes, even though I passed. So I had no idea about physics or chemistry,” Fatima says.

“With my weak background in these subjects, it was a big challenge to catch up when I enrolled at university. I used to read reference books to study harder than my peers in order to succeed.”

Knowledge and skills obtained from higher education help young refugees become self-reliant. © UNHCR/T. Habjouqa 

Today, Fatima is studying her Masters in Astrophysics at the American University of Beirut.

“When I was a child, one of my dreams was to become an astronaut. I have always been interested in everything related to astrophysics. That is why I chose Physics as my major,” she says.

“I am very ambitious and one of my goals is to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, or to work for NASA!

“Albert Einstein was a refugee and he is one of history's greatest physicists.

“We are refugees. We have many problems, but we have to face them. We cannot give up. We have to be brave. That is the only way we can achieve our dreams.”

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Fatima is studying a Masters in Astrophysics and hopes to one day win a Nobel Prize. © UNHCR/A. Tardy

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