Two Refugee Students Come to Toyota as They Try to Build Bonds between Syria and Japan


Toyota’s Middle East & Central Asia Division, which oversees the company’s business in the region, welcomed Ibrahim and Ahmed, two students from Syria as interns for about a month in June last year.

The two students fled Syria as refugees after the civil war intensified there, and came to Japan between 2018 and 2019 after applying to join the Japanese Initiative for the Future of Syrian Refugees (JISR)*. They planned to study at a Japanese university to obtain an MBA.

*A program announced in 2016 by the Japanese government as part of their Middle East policy. It was launched by JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) to provide education to Syrians deprived of any chance to study. Around 100 Syrian students who fled to nearby Jordan and Lebanon as refugees have been accepted into this program in five stages up to 2021. The word “Jisr” in Arabic means “bridge.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 82.4 million people around the world had been forced to flee their homes due to war and persecution as of the end of 2020. As many as 6.7 million of these people were Syrians, making up the biggest proportion of refugees.

Toyota’s Middle East & Central Asia Division contacted the UNHCR to raise their awareness of the plight of refugees, which also lead to the company accepting these two interns.

So, what were the takeaways from Toyota for the two students, who traveled from the Middle East to study in far-off Japan, and as refugees what were their impressions of Toyota? With their internships now over, Toyota Times interviewed the two to find out.

Unable to study, despite the will to learn

Ahmed and Ibrahim both majored in engineering at prominent national universities in Syria.

The Syrian Civil War, which broke out in 2011, changed everything for them, though. Pro-democracy uprisings during the Arab Spring spread to Syria, prompting major anti-government protests throughout the country. The protestors were then joined by extremist militants, triggering violent conflicts with government authorities.

Ahmed studied petroleum engineering at university, and after graduating began working for a petroleum company in Syria. He joined an oil drilling project and was made foreman.

He continued studying for his master’s degree while working, but the company first suspended and then shut down his drilling site due to the intensifying civil war. He had to abandon both his studies and work. He watched in horror as bombs fell in front of his house and decided to move to Lebanon, where his grandmother lived.

Ahmed felt he could learn much about engineering in Japan.

Ibrahim was still a student when his university closed down after the campus and student dormitories were bombed during the war. He moved to Algeria, where his father lived, and then to Jordan, where he entered university once again.

He became involved in a variety of activities as a student in Jordan, and even won a contest in a Livelihoods and Self-Reliance Project co-sponsored by the MIT Media Lab, a research institute within the School of Architecture + Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the U.S.

Ibrahim was studying in Jordan when he decided to go to Japan

The common thread between these two men is that they both struggled as refugees through an inability to study despite their will to learn, and eventually chose to continue their studies in Japan. They first talked about why they made the choices.

- You had a variety of choices, but why did you choose Japan to study for your MBA?


I found out about JICA’s scholarship program through Facebook. The website had a beautiful photo of Mt. Fuji. It was very impressive, so I decided to find out what kinds of courses were available.

Many people from the Middle East choose to study in the U.S. or Europe. Europe is only a few hours away by plane, and people have become familiar with the culture because of historical links. But I was so moved by that beautiful photo of Mt. Fuji.

The photo of Japan that moved Ahmed’s heart

People in the Middle East are also very familiar with Japan. Everyone grew up watching Japanese anime, and “Made in Japan” is synonymous with high quality there. Japan is respected in the Middle East for its high-quality, consistent, efficient, and lean manufacturing methods.

I majored in engineering, so I felt that I had a lot to learn from Japan.


I moved to Jordan, where I found it extremely difficult for Syrians to acquire visas for overseas travel. I had always wanted to travel a lot to study, but I faced great difficulty because of this visa problem.

That was when I saw a notice posted on my friend’s Facebook about a meeting to explain the JICA program scheduled at my university.

I was majoring in production engineering, so I’d always been interested in technology. I’d also been studying about Toyota, so I wanted to learn more about the company on-site.

I had the choice of studying at a university in Europe, but in the end, I chose Japan because I thought it would allow me to experience something unique that no one else could.

I wanted to step outside my comfort zone and experience something that I knew I would find highly rewarding.