Student-led campaign leads to scholarships to support refugees at the University of Essex

By Tola Akindipe

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Image: Tola Akindipe, Zoe Garshong, and scholarship recipients Rahaf, Nusaiba and Ahmad

Since the beginning of the current refugee crisis in Europe there has been a lot of interest in how higher education can provide opportunities to people who are fleeing persecution. Many universities have drafted policies to make it easier for their admissions departments to admit refugees, or have offered scholarships and fee waivers. During the summer of 2017 the University of Essex decided to join this movement and announced that it would pilot a scholarship scheme to offer three scholarships worth £10,000 to Syrian refugees. This post will discuss the student-led campaign that convinced the University to launch this important initiative.

In the academic year of 2015-2016, the then President of the Student Union, Adrian Chira, began a campaign to bring more attention to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. This was especially topical given that there were still thousands of potential asylum seekers in Calais, France, who were waiting to be allowed into England. Adrian also used this opportunity to try to lobby the University of Essex to create scholarships specifically for refugees. Unfortunately, this initial campaign was ultimately not successful.

I came to Essex to study for a MA in human rights during the 2016-2017 academic year. I have a background in working with refugees, having co-founded Refugees Welcome Portugal, which is part of the Refugees Welcome International movement. One of the main issues that many refugees come to me with is a lack of access to higher education. When I arrived at Essex, it was an issue that I noticed immediately and, with a PhD student (Selin Siviş), I decided to try to do something about it.

We came up with a small team that included Nele Schuldt and Amez Sulaiman from Amnesty International Society Essex. My aim was to bring together all the best elements from previous campaigns and enlist the help of new students to develop an effective campaign. Despite the importance of having a student-led campaign, it was also necessary to involve staff so we worked with Jess Twyman, Arts and Gallery Director on campus, and Carlos Gigoux, First Year Director & Admissions in the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex.  Jess also suggested that we work with the Student Action for Refugees (STAR) so that they could help us with our meetings with senior officials. STAR is a network of student groups across the UK that support refugees. STAR’s input was important, as through them we focused more on refugees living in the UK. Supporting refugees in the local community was easier for the University of Essex to support because the University is developing its relationship with the local community through Colchester-based organisations.

Each member of the campaign had an important role. I was responsible for general coordination and connecting the campaign with the University of Essex Student Union (in particular Zoe Garshong (SU President) and Saffy Allayna (former VP International)). Selin connected us with the Centre for Trauma, Asylum and Refugees (CTAR), while Nele Schuldt and Amez Sulaiman helped the campaign as representatives of the Amnesty International society on campus.
A huge thank you must also go to Carlos Gigoux, who gave us incredible support and useful strategic advice, and helped the campaign to reach the right people at the university.

Another critical pillar of support was the local community. Colchester has a strong refugee support community that is led by Maria Wilby at Refugee Action Colchester. Maria helped the campaign connect with refugees living locally and helped us to understand some of the issues that they routinely face. This also showed us the amazing work that the refugee support community does to support the small number of refugees living in Colchester.

It is important to note that students have undertaken other efforts to help with local refugee integration. Other projects that deserve a mention include, for example, the refugee teaching programme run by Nele Schuldt, where students taught English to refugees and migrants in Colchester. There were also a number of Syrian dinners on campus, which was organised by the local refugee support community with the support of students. These dinners raised money to support refugees and were a celebration of Syrian culture.

This successful campaign shows that with some organisation, anything is possible! I encourage other students/student groups that wonder if they can do something to press ahead because if it is a feasible idea, people will listen, particularly if the idea benefits vulnerable people and the community at large.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) 

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