Palestinian refugee thriving at Eton

ETON (United Kingdom) • Wearing a white tie and coat-tails, 18-year-old Ammar Mustapha sits near the manicured grounds of Britain's most prestigious school, a world away from the Palestinian refugee camps he grew up in in Syria and Lebanon.

Mr Mustapha, shy and soft-spoken, was plucked from among millions of refugee children to attend Britain's exclusive Eton College, the alma mater of prime ministers and even members of the royal family.

Said the youth, who was offered a scholarship by a charity due to his outstanding academic ability: "It was a life-changing opportunity."

He insists it was not all bad in Syria's Yarmuk camp, which his family fled in 2012 before it became infamous for its skeletal children and apocalyptic landscape, recalling a happy childhood there. "When we say camp, that doesn't mean tents and anything like that," he said.

Just south of central Damascus, the camp was set up in the 1950s for Palestinian refugees but, in recent years, it has been besieged in a pitiless war between anti-government forces and the Syrian military.

MAKING GOOD PROGRESS

Ammar turned out to be very shy and quiet but with outstanding student academic ability... His English improved so quickly and so well.

ETON PHYSICS TEACHER PETER MANN, on how Mr Amman Mustapha has adapted to Eton

Born in Libya, Mr Mustapha and his family moved to the densely packed district in 1999 so that his father could take up a job as an electrician.

Days before bombs began to rain down on Yarmuk three years ago, the family fled to Lebanon, joining millions of other refugees.

That was where he was spotted by Eton physics teacher Peter Mann, who for the last two years has travelled to Lebanon in December to interview gifted children to study at his school.

Mr Mann said: "Ammar turned out to be very shy and quiet but with outstanding student academic ability."

After tests in his school in Tyre in southern Lebanon and a week of examinations at Eton, Mr Mustapha, then aged 16, was chosen for a scholarship to study with the children of Britain's elite.

The US$50,000 bursary covers fees and expenses, and was provided by the Cogito Scholarship Foundation, which aims to improve the Middle East by sending gifted underprivileged children to the world's best schools.

"I have never heard any other boy comment on him, which is a sign he's doing really well. His English improved so quickly and so well," Mr Mann said.

Now in his final year, Mr Mustapha is applying to some of the top British and American universities. After graduating, he says he intends to stay in Europe or the United States to work.

However, he said his long-term goal "is to go back to Lebanon and help my community as a civil engineer".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2015, with the headline 'Palestinian refugee thriving at Eton'. Print Edition | Subscribe