London’s School of Oriental and African Studies among 40 UK universities supporting people forced to flee their homes
By: Omar Karmi
Somalilandsun- Aaron looked up from the table and around the empty cafeteria of the School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS.
“I was kidnapped,” he said, matter-of-factly. “That’s how I got to Egypt.”
Aaron’s is a remarkable story, one of lucky escapes and pure determination that has taken him from his home country of Eritrea through Sudan to Egypt before coming to the UK.
Today, the 30-year-old, who did not want his real name published, is one of seven students at SOAS benefitting from a newly established refugee scholarship that started for the 2016-17 academic year.
It is an opportunity he is almost at a loss to describe.
“It’s really important. It makes a big difference, a life-long difference.”
University education is truly liberating – and holds out hope for a better future.
The SOAS Refugee Scholarships are among a crop of similar initiatives that UK universities are beginning to extend in response to a global refugee crisis that rocked Europe in 2015.
“The tragedy of global forced displacement should lead all of us to think how we can make a difference,” said Professor Richard Black, Pro-Director for Research and Enterprise at SOAS.
“In the university sector, a concrete way we can help is by ensuring that a generation of young people does not miss out on higher education. University education is truly liberating – and holds out hope for a better future.”
UNHCR estimates that by the end of 2015, there were 65.3 million people worldwide – including 21.3 million refugees – who had been forced to flee their homes.
For the majority of refugees, dreams of higher education never materialise: only 1% of refugee youth around the world ever go to university. For those in the UK, access to scholarships and bursaries is often vital. Not everybody granted protection automatically qualifies for home student support and university costs can be prohibitively high.
Over 40 UK universities up and down the country now offer or are setting up scholarships for refugees and asylum seekers. These range from fee waivers, where all tuition costs are covered, to scholarships that include accommodation and living costs.
Over 40 UK universities up and down the country now offer or are setting up scholarships for refugees and asylum seekers
Five years after fleeing Eritrea, four years since he escaped a pickup-truck in Aswan in southern Egypt, where he found himself after being snatched by human traffickers in Sudan, and two years since arriving in the UK as part of the Gateway Resettlement Programme, Aaron is finally getting down to his Master’s degree in Immigration and Diaspora Studies.
His choice of study was, he said with a smile, “100 percent because of my own situation.”
“But,” he added, “It is also because of the bigger picture of what refugees face. I have insight into that bigger picture.”
Fellow refugee scholarship recipient, Ahmad, 26, was similarly motivated in choosing his MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development.
Ahmad, a Syrian Kurd, fled his hometown of Aleppo in 2013. He first went to the Kurdish areas of Iraq, believing his exile would be temporary. But by 2015 it was clear that a return to Aleppo was impossible and like thousands of others, Ahmad turned to Europe.
Since arriving in the UK, Ahmad has volunteered with organisations working with refugees. Once he was granted refugee status, he was lucky enough to be hosted by an English family, allowing him time to apply to universities. Like Aaron, he was offered places at a number of different institutions, but chose SOAS because of its focus on the Middle East.
Also like Aaron, Ahmad had to find separate funding for living costs, help he eventually secured from the Said Foundation.
Ahmad also hopes he can use his studies to give something back.
These people will go back to help rebuild the country. This is what I hope to do.
“Europe today has the pleasure and privilege of having Syrian scholars — intelligent, smart people — coming here,” Ahmad said. “They are an asset. Tomorrow, the conflict in Syria will come to an end, and these people will go back to help rebuild the country. This is what I hope to do and it is why I chose these particular subjects.”
In the meantime, he said, he is grateful.
“I feel so privileged because I have the opportunity to study at one of the most prestigious institutions when it comes to the Middle East and North Africa. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”