When he graduated from high school in Damascus, Syria, Mostapha Ramadan had plenty of reasons to be optimistic about his future. His career got off to a promising start with a gig as a sales agent at an internet company and admission to a computer science program at a local university. Then came the war that has been tearing apart his country for the last five years.

Ramadan was forced to quit school and flee. "I wasn't able to continue my studies because I traveled from Syria to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt," he tells Inc.com in an email. Now he's settled in Turkey and perhaps a bit of luck has returned -- Ramadan is among hundreds of refugees receiving a full scholarship from accredited, degree-granting online University of the People. Now he's back to studying computer science.

There's room for everyone in a virtual lecture hall

UoPeople is tuition-free for all students but between an application and test fees, the cost of completing a bachelor's degree is around $4,000. Thanks to a grant from the Hoffman Foundation, the school is now offering around 500 scholarships covering these costs for refugees, making attendance completely free.

Why refugees? As UoPeople founder and president Shai Reshef explains, serving those displaced by war is the logical extension of the school's mission to enable even the most disadvantaged to access higher education. (You can learn more about this mission from his TED talk.)

"The challenges refugees face are enormous and their conditions are frequently dire. However, education offers a chance to turn lives around. The majority of refugees and asylum seekers currently have no options to pursue higher education," he tells Inc.com. "In a virtual classroom, there's a place for everyone."

Ramadan understands all too well the difficulties of accessing local education. While universities in Turkey provide free places for refugees, studying there requires proficient Turkish and local exam results. Plus, the logistical demands of surviving in a new country make studying difficult even if a student can clear those barriers. "We need to work to get money, and all the universities require daily attendance. It's prohibited to work and study at the same time here. So if no savings, no one can study here," Ramadan explains.

But thanks to his free ride at UoPeople, he's once again got some optimism about his career. "I'm sure I will get an excellent qualification which will help me to achieve my future goals. After graduating I'm planing to do a masters as well," he says.

Reshef hopes UoPeople can help many more refugees like Ramadan seize control of their futures despite the political turbulence back home. "We've received 1,300 applicants so far who have identified themselves as Syrian refugees. Of these, we have admitted already 100. An additional 250 are currently awaiting scholarships to be admitted for next term," he says. "We will provide as many scholarships as we have available, and should the demand exceed our capacity, we will do our best to secure more scholarships."

It's quite likely that 500 scholarships won't be enough. According to The Institute of International Education approximately 100,000 individuals among the waves of refugees leaving Syria are young people qualified for university. This isn't just a tragedy for those thousands of talented would-be students forced to sacrifice their futures for survival, but for all of us, according to Reshef.

"This is clearly not only a matter of 'their problem' or their future at stake, but the collective future of us all," he concludes.

Published on: Mar 9, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.