Friends with money

Refugees need more than bur­saries

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

It started with a ques­tion. Stu­dents at the Univer­sity of Hert­ford­shire had gath­ered to hear about the cre­ation of an ex­hi­bi­tion on the sub­ject of refugees, for the char­ity Break­ing Bar­ri­ers. One of the stu­dents, tear­ful at the story of a youth who had been tor­tured be­fore es­cap­ing fam­ily-less and pen­ni­less to Lon­don, asked what we could do to help refugees al­ready here.

What if, I sug­gested blithely to the CEO of Break­ing Bar­ri­ers, our vice-chan­cel­lor could be per­suaded to of­fer schol­ar­ships?

I thought that the hard­est part would be per­suad­ing him to shoul­der the cost. But I felt that if we pre­sented him with a pro­file of the in­di­vid­u­als we would be help­ing, that would be harder to turn down. My col­leagues agreed.

In hind­sight, per­suad­ing our vice-chan­cel­lor was easy. The pit­falls were find­ing the refugee and nav­i­gat­ing the Kafkaesque bu­reau­cracy. With the con­fi­dence of the clue­less, I started a ring-round of lo­cal coun­cils. Ev­ery­one had refugees but they were all were ut­terly un­suit­able. “She’s very en­thu­si­as­tic,” said one coun­cil worker. “She hasn’t been in ed­u­ca­tion since [she was] nine but she’d love to have a go.”

The most com­mon prob­lem was lack of English. I turned to the Refugee Coun­cil with

a strict list of cri­te­ria. The stu­dent needed to have fin­ished high school and had to want to study some­thing we of­fered; they needed to live within com­mut­ing dis­tance; and, most im­por­tant of all, their English should be at IELTS 6.5, the low­est stan­dard we could ac­cept. They came up with a can­di­date who had re­cently es­caped from Syria and had been granted refugee sta­tus. He had spent a year in univer­sity be­fore com­ing to the UK and was des­per­ate to con­tinue his stud­ies.

A quick ap­praisal by the staff who teach English to our in­ter­na­tional stu­dents revealed that he did not yet have good enough English. But he was not far from the stan­dard re­quired of in­ter­na­tional stu­dents who take our pre­de­gree aca­demic English course. If the vicechan­cel­lor would fund that as well, there was a very good chance that he could take – and more im­por­tantly suc­ceed at – the de­gree.

This is where it helps to have a team. The English lan­guage teach­ing spe­cial­ists vol­un­teered to give our prospec­tive stu­dent free tu­ition to get him through the first exam. A lo­cal refugee group of­fered to fund his travel to the univer­sity, while our staff group raised money for liv­ing costs. And our ad­mis­sions team sorted out qual­i­fi­ca­tion equiv­a­lence.

One of the odd­est re­quire­ments was that he should sup­ply an aca­demic ref­er­ence. Since refugees are by def­i­ni­tion flee­ing from per­se­cu­tion, the like­li­hood of their tu­tors be­ing able to give them a ref­er­ence is neg­li­gi­ble. How would that have worked out for Jewish refugees flee­ing Nazi per­se­cu­tion? Fi­nally, af­ter a pa­per­work bat­tle of epic pro­por­tions, he is now on our aca­demic English course in prepa­ra­tion for his de­gree this au­tumn.

Our prospec­tive stu­dent is en­thu­si­as­tic and charm­ing, not­ing down strange English phrases he comes across and pre­sent­ing them to us to trans­late. But he is hav­ing to come to terms with the trauma of leav­ing Syria while see­ing what is hap­pen­ing there on the news. He is here in body, but still in Syria in spirit.

He has new cul­tural mores and ex­pec­ta­tions to nav­i­gate, as well as a host of small stress is­sues, from find­ing his way to the right cam­pus, to fill­ing in the join­ing forms, to get­ting a coun­cil tax re­bate and even work­ing out what his ex­pec­ta­tions are. He told me glumly at one meet­ing that he did not think he could write as well as the jour­nal­ists on The Times, not even once his English im­proves. It has been a learn­ing curve in cul­tural aware­ness for me, too. One day dur­ing the heat­wave I rang a teach­ing col­league to find out how our new stu­dent was cop­ing dur­ing Ra­madan, with day-long English lan­guage ses­sions in equa­to­rial heat, gar­nished by a long bus ride home. She replied curtly that he was not the only stu­dent fast­ing and wilt­ing in the heat. There will be fur­ther chal­lenges as he starts his de­gree and has to adapt to a sys­tem of ed­u­ca­tion that is so dif­fer­ent from the one he is used to, study­ing along­side stu­dents whose lives have not been bro­ken by war. But by try­ing to keep in con­tact with him, we will be in a bet­ter place to help him steer his way through. Then we will start pre­par­ing for the next refugee stu­dent. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that it is not enough to of­fer a schol­ar­ship and then just hope some­thing will turn up. If you are go­ing to give some­one the op­por­tu­nity to suc­ceed in an en­tirely new en­vi­ron­ment, they need and de­serve more than that.

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