“Fake” Universities That Hunt Syrian Refugees

“Fake” Universities That Hunt Syrian Refugees
Investigations | 23 May 2016

After many young Syrians resorted to fleeing to neighboring countries to escape death and in the absence of any prospects to continue their education, Syrian students have decided to complete their university studies in the hope of building their own future so as not to fall into the trap of despair. As most of them do not speak Turkish, they resort to universities that promote themselves on social media, taking advantage of the state of chaos and loss that Syrian refugee students suffer from. Now, they face a new source of suffering due to universities whose certificates proved to be worth less than the paper they are printed on. These certificates state the name, specialization and degree, but do enjoy any official recognition that would open up broader horizons for the student’s future.

Recently, a disagreement between two universities, Arees International University and Arees University, erupted after the Arees International University awarded an honorary doctorate to Moaz al-Khatib. This drew attention to the university and its origins. Syrians were left confused between Arees University, which is located in America, and Arees International University, which is located in Turkey. This divided students at the Arees International University and revealed their personal experiences with this university, some going so far as to accuse it of fraud and using al-Khatib’s name to promote the University. The Rozana radio station decided to investigate the University and its work.

Arees University

Rozana contacted Dr. Isam Rajab who said, "There was a lack of provision of academic education on Sharia in America. So I founded an institute in Houston, Texas in 2006 when I was in the US. When I started the project, 124 students enrolled in our institute. However, the number dropped to 54 students within a month and only 12 students graduated in 2009. This was the first batch of the Arees Institute."

Rajab added that the Texas authorities had contacted them through the Texas Workforce Commission and stipulated that we refund the fees or allow them to review the curriculum for their approval. Based on this “curriculum review", an educational exemption was issued to Arees because the curriculum was based on religion. Basing on this exemption, the Texas Higher Education Council requested to supervise our university and demanded that we introduce other subjects. However, we refused to be supervised and we made do with the "educational exemption", as is the case with other religious institutes. We obtained a license in 2009. On this basis, the certificates are certified by the US State Department.

Rajab added that he had met Dr. Samer Kantakji, a specialist in Islamic economy, and asked him to become the full-time director of the institute. Samer Kantakji proposed opening a branch in Lebanon and appointing Mohammed Khaer al-Ghabani‎ as Dean of the Islamic University and head of the university branch in Lebanon since he worked in the field of public relations. This is what happened in 2012, and the name of the institute was changed to Arees University as Kantakji and al-Ghabani, in Lebanon, requested. 

"Unfortunately, we discovered that al-Ghabani registered the name "Arees" in Lebanon in his name, using the authorizations we gave him. We noticed that there were many violations, including some students’ enrollment in "Islamic economy", while we did not have such a branch. To put an end to these violations, we requested that student registrations should be done online through the university’s website in order to obtain the exact number of students because we learned later that he took fees from them and did not inform us about it. However, he did not comply with this decision and opened a branch of the university in Turkey without our knowledge. Given these scientific, academic, legal, and administrative violations, we issued a decision to dismiss him."

In Turkey, cases were brought between Arees University and al-Ghabani. When the former won the case, the lawyer informed Arees University’s representative that "any activity in the name of Arees will be suspended in Istanbul if it has not been approved by you, and they forced him to change the university’s name and logo. He changed the logo but the name is still the same, and we will issue legal proceedings regarding this", Rajab said.
Dr. Samer Kantakji, president of Arees University, says, “Mohammed Khaer al-Ghabani was the representative of Arees University in Lebanon. He gave honorary degrees without our knowledge and did not comply with the instructions we gave him. Therefore, we dissolved the university’s branch in Lebanon and considered that everything that was issued from Arees University in Lebanon was illegal. In the meantime, we found out that he had reserved the domain name "areesuniversity.com" and issued a license in Lebanon in the name of Hilal Darwish. When he was prosecuted, he moved to Turkey. Arees University, in its name, started to pursue him legally. For now, the website is blocked and anyone who visits it will find that it is not working.”

Rozana contacted the Texas Higher Education Council to inquire about Arees University. They responded by saying, "This university is authorized only for religious studies".

The decision to appoint Mohammed Khaer al-Ghabani and the decision to dismiss him:

Minutes of the meeting:

The decision in Turkish and Arabic:

Texas workforce letter:

Arees University HEB letter 10.8.12:

Arees International University:

Rozana also contacted Dr. Mohammed Khaer al-Ghabani. He insisted that he represents Arees International University and that this university is different from Arees University, and that Arees International has a number of acknowledgements and recognized certificates around the world. When we asked about the license, he said that a decision on this matter was issued in the Maldives in 2014, while the university had been issuing certificates since 2010. The university is also licensed by the International Union of Universities, which al-Ghabani says is a recognized union in Turkey active in partnerships, agreements and training of universities and is licensed and applied to the Council of Higher Education (Turkish: Yükseköğretim Kurulu, or YÖK) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for approval.

Al-Ghabani continued, "We have no connection with Arees in the USA. We started a civic radio station in Lebanon in 2012 through our license in the Maldives in 2014. We also registered our logo in 2013."
However, when we searched for the International Aris University’s license in Lebanon, we found that the university is unlicensed. The Director General of Higher Education, Prof. Dr. Ahmad Jammal, said, "We received a report about this university which was signed by a fake center in Lebanon. We conducted investigations and found that it does not exist in Lebanon. This university is not licensed and its certificates are not recognized in Lebanon. The attached report issued by the Ministry of Economic Affairs is a registration of a trademark, which any commercial company can obtain in Lebanon. The licensing of higher education institutions is the responsibility of the Council of Ministers after the request is examined by specialized technical committees and by the Higher Education Council. This university is one of a number of fake universities that issue certificates, known as part of the ‘Diploma Factory’."

After confronting al-Ghabani with these issues, he responded that the Arees International University issued educational certificates based on the "license" held by a civic radio station in Lebanon, not as a recognized university. He justified this on the basis that there is no president in Lebanon and that being a civic radio station, like any license, makes organizations eligible to enter into the education sector, whether it is a “waqf” (endowment), “a civic radio station” or “an association”.

Concerning the legal disputes between Arees University and the Arees International University, which he heads, al-Ghabani said, “After working with Arees University, I found out that it was not licensed by the Texas Education Council and that it is a religious institute whose license is issued in the name of an association. So we stopped dealing with it after two years of promotional work. For this reason, I had to use its original name and add the word ‘international’ in the new license to continue our work.”

Al-Ghabani also lamented the "outcry" after Arees International University gave the honorary doctorate to Moaz al-Khatib, blaming it on political disputes and the enemies of al-Khatib, and stating that the attack on the university began after it decided to honor him.

Concerning the certificates, al-Ghabani claimed that he is ready to translate the certificate and to get it certified by the Turkish Foreign Ministry and that he is not responsible if it is not accepted. Here, there is a difference between students not being accepted in other universities or if they do not have a postgraduate degree, since some universities do not have Masters or doctoral programs. He explained that language is also a barrier against the recognition of the certificate if the student completed his studies in Arabic and has to finish them in a Turkish university in the Turkish language. Al-Ghabani added that they are planning to open a building for the university in Istanbul in July.

The university’s fees range from 500 dollars for studies at the Islamic Sharia College to 1,000 dollars for other faculties. Concerning the Masters degree, the thesis discussion fees are 600 dollars for Islamic studies and 1,200 dollars for other subjects. The doctoral fees are 900 dollars.

Our sources informed us that the fee for obtaining a PhD far exceeds this and reaches into the thousands of dollars.

In addition, Rozana contacted the International Union of Universities in Paris, which claimed that the university was not registered in their region. We also contacted the headquarters of the Association of Arab Universities (also called the Union of Arab Universities) in Jordan, which denied that Arees International University was part of the Union and said that they had no information about it.

In addition, Rozana obtained documents proving that the Arees International University is a civil company licensed under the name of "Mohammed Khaer al-Ghabani" and "Hilal Darwish Darwish" in Lebanon. Moreover, the license from the International Union of Universities that Al-Ghabani relies on is also a civil company licensed under the name of "Mohammed Khaer al-Ghabani" in Lebanon as well.

Rozana contacted the Ministry of Higher Education in the Maldives several times by e-mail and telephone but did not receive any answer regarding the academic licensing of Arees International University.

At this point, it is important to point out that we noticed that there were "misspellings" in one of the certificates issued by Arees International University. In addition, we obtained two documents from one of the students, one of which is a certificate for a Masters degree dated 01-01-2015, while the second document concerns a masters thesis discussion that took place on 06-03-2015. This means that the certificate was issued two months before the decision to discuss the masters thesis.

We also verified, through research, that the name of the website http://www.uiutr.com/, which is registered under the name of the "International Union of Universities " and published on the Facebook page of the Union, is out of date. It was later changed on the Union’s Facebook page to www.iuutr.com. When we visited the website www.areesuniversity.com in Turkey, we found it closed for legal reasons, while visitors from outside Turkey are redirected to another website.

The Maldives license:

A statement:

The Registration of Arees International University in Lebanon:

Certificate of International Universities Union for Arees International University: 

Logo registration at the Lebanese Ministry of Economic Affairs (as a company):

A spelling mistake in an issued certificate:

The website of the Arees International University in Turkey is closed:

The decision to award a masters degree:

A masters degree was awarded on 01-01-2015 and the second document shows the masters thesis discussion was held on 06-03-2015, which means that the masters degree was issued two months before the decision to discuss the thesis.

Arees International University in Turkey

Abdullah al-Toma, a Syrian student, left his country and started looking for a university in order to carry on his studies. He said, “I wanted to complete my studies at Arees International University in Istanbul. I learned that the Arees University is accredited in the United States and that they opened a branch in Reyhanli, Turkey. I was surprised that the new university was in Reyhanli and not in Istanbul. I contacted a person named Muhammad Sa'id who introduced himself as a Doctor of Islamic Sharia working at a private university in Hama. When I asked him about registration he said they had an office in Urfa for those who wanted to study any subject other than Sharia. He also identified the university as a subsidiary of the American Arees International University. I called the Urfa office but then I had a feeling that this was some kind of ruse so I dropped the whole idea”. 
Al-Toma explained that he was contacted after a month and told that Arees International University had opened a branch in Istanbul. “After several exchanges, I was referred to the director of the Istanbul office, Hamza al-Mashadani. When I called him, he told me that they were preparing to launch so it would be impossible to receive me in his office. He asked me to meet him at the well-known Hestoria AVM center. He identified himself as a representative of “Arees International University” in Istanbul and that they could accept and assist Syrians at the university with a grant of one thousand dollars per year. Mr. Sa’id said that theses fees were to make it easier for students because al-Ghabani likes to help Syrians.” 

“The director of the university’s branch in Istanbul took a fee of 1100 dollars, justifying the extra 100 dollars on the basis that it could cover the cost of printing copies of lectures. He said that there was another branch being prepared in Yenibosna. When I asked for a receipt, I was surprised that it stated only a thousand dollars. I was told that the 100 dollars increase was dedicated to other expenses that would not be included in the receipt, which would be sent to the US.”  

“After asking about the start date, al-Mashadani said that they needed about a month. However, the date was postponed several times and I was asked to help them attract other students to enroll at the university so they could start soon. I roped in a friend who also paid 1100 dollars and received a receipt for one thousand dollars.” 
“After receiving apologies month after month, I felt that I was being tricked, so I tried to get back the money that my friend and I had paid. They tried to avoid our request. I received a call from al-Ghabani telling me that they were intending to close the university’s branch in Istanbul and that I had to get my money from whoever I had paid it to. 

I was ignored when I tried several times to reach them and convince them using various arguments – sometimes religious, sometimes ethical or humanitarian. After a while, the final reply was that they knew nothing about what had happened, and that I must contact the person who took the money from me. The situation lasted for about two years until my friend and I got our money back minus the 100 dollars for administrative costs and printing lecture papers.

The receipt: 

Arees in Lebanon

Another student, who we can only identify as F.S. said, "I was enrolled in Daawa University Institute for Islamic Studies in Beirut in order to obtain a Masters degree through the University’s agent in Damascus, Mohammed Khaer al-Ghabani. I paid about six installments and, unfortunately, I did not take any receipts because I am a very trusting person. My enrollment coincided with the beginning of the Syrian revolution and because I was arrested 3 times, it was impossible for me to start my studies there. Afterwards, I learned that they had left the place and moved the branch to Lebanon.

After I was released, I had to leave Damascus and go to Beirut because I was wanted. I inquired about my results after I submitted my Masters thesis, consisting of 11 research papers, which I personally handed to al-Ghabani to be submitted to the Daawa University Institute for Islamic Studies.

At the Institute in Beirut, I inquired about the results but they found nothing.   When they asked me how I had registered, I informed them that it was through their intermediary in Damascus. They started whispering then took me, in a state of shock, to the head of the research department, Dr. Hilal Darwish. I told him my story. Dr. Darwish informed me that the University had not received my research or fees and that I had to speak to Mr. al-Ghabani regarding the matter. I was so disheartened because I knew that my school year had been a total waste. 

I met al-Ghabani in Beirut and he received me warmly. However, I was surprised to see Hilal Darwish, who had criticized al-Ghabani during our previous meeting, come in a few minutes later by. Al-Ghabani reassured me and asked me to continue my studies at the Arees University. In addition, he said he would consider my research to be completed and that it would be graded immediately. When I asked him about the research papers, he said that he had lost them but that they would be approved. He then asked me to pay more fees. I lost my temper and told him that I had paid all the required fees. However, he assured me that he would find a solution. Yet, the moment I told him that I had no money left to pay, Hilal Darwish informed me that I would not be able to continue at the Daawa University Institute for Islamic Studies. 

After finding myself trapped because all my research papers had been lost, I was forced to enroll at the Arees University. Later, I was surprised to find that Hilal Darwish himself was a shareholder at this university and was pushing me to enroll there. 

Later, I settled in Turkey and started studying at Arees University at a distance. By that time, it had become the Arees International University. They asked me to finish my thesis. They stalled for a whole year and when we agreed on a date for my thesis discussion, they asked me to pay 1000 dollars on the pretext that they needed to pay the people who would participate in the discussion. At that time I only had 700 dollars, which I had no choice but to pay them. I did not get the certificate until I paid the rest of the fees - 300 dollars - after much effort and distress.”

F.S. added that he had tried to get his masters degree recognized by the University of Islamic Science Graduates. They apologized and told him explicitly that they do not recognize Arees International University. He also stated that he had obtained his present job by means of his Bachelor's degree from Omdurman Islamic University.

Academic standards

Rozana contacted Dr. Usama al-Hamawi, president of the League of Arab Academics in Turkey and a professor at the University of Istanbul. He explained that many Masters and PhD students have contacted the association to inquire about recognized universities, including the University of Arees or Arees International University. However, after checking we found that the university is not recognized in Lebanon and it is not licensed according to the accepted academic norms. Even the Maldives license is incomplete and does not allow the university to grant Masters and PhD degrees."

Al-Hamawi added that he personally took a look at one of the doctoral dissertations and found out that it was completely plagiarized. He also claimed that most of those who seek to obtain false certificates are "sheikhs" who aspire to become doctors in Islamic studies in various ways.

Academically, Dr. al-Hamawi said that the title of “professor” is a level awarded to a person who has taught at an accredited state university and has conducted methodical research under academic supervision. One of the most important conditions is that a professor must have an academic publication that is taught at universities.
Mohammad al-Samman, the director of the Syria Advisory Center and an expert in strategic planning, management and human resources development said, “Universities that are not academically licensed have spread in a shameful way. These universities are targeting Syrian students who face a really tough time finding a university to continue their studies. A university is characterized by several features, the most important of which is that the electronic address of the university’s website ends with ".edu". If an institute does not have this, it is not a licensed university, as this is an international domain granted by relevant authorities, which are the United States Department of Education and Department of Commerce. These authorities would not register any university unless it proves its status. We should also highlight here the classification of universities on the following website - http://www.webometrics.info/en.”

Al-Samman added, "It should be noted that some universities have academic recognition but some of their programs, faculties, Masters or PhD programs are not recognized. University degrees must be certified by academic authorities. Certification by a Foreign Ministry is considered as only a certification of the signature on the certificate and this does not mean that the degree is recognized by academic institutions.”   
“Diploma Factories”

It should be noted that there are many universities that issue academic certificates without academic accreditation. In May 2014, some sources within the Syrian Interim Government’s Ministry of Education confirmed that they had discovered five universities and a number of institutes that do not have academic or international accreditation. Among these educational institutions are the Free Syrian University, Lahaye International University, Arees University, the Harv International University for Accredited Learning and the Syrian-Turkish University, in addition to the Institute for the Preparation of Diplomats, which gives a virtual "Diplomat" certificate after only 40 hours of study.

What is also noteworthy is that there is a common method used by some non-accredited universities and fake universities that sell diplomas. These establishments resort to one method in the process of certification, which is to obtain the signature of a notary, just like any other document issued in the name of any person as the issuer of the certificate. They add various academic titles under the name of a university, exploiting the fact that the local laws in these countries do not address or object to the use of the term “university” in the name of a commercial entity, which grants certificates certified by notaries, then by the relevant Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

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