by Malaika Jaovisidha, International Students Officer
I’m ashamed to say that, like thousands of others, I only took notice of the Syrian crisis when the photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi began circulating on social media. I am sure you all know the photo I mean. It shows a dark-haired toddler washed up on a beach, lying face down in the surf not far from a Turkish resort. I knew of the Syrian crisis, of course, but it had largely faded into the melee of reports, headlines, and photos of death and destruction that filtered in through the news every day. It became easy to filter out. Before this photo, it seemed so far from here.
‘You could be in the same situation.’ I’m sat in the SU office, across from a PhD student who wishes to remain anonymous. She arrived at UEA a few years ago from Aleppo, Syria, to begin her master’s, and has gone on to a PhD. She’s meeting me to talk about Syrian Crisis Fundraising Week, which I am organising with the SU. ‘Aleppo is a beautiful city, same as Norwich,’ she continues. ‘It always feels far away until it’s happening to you.’
She shares with me her story. How she was in the third year of her BSc in Aleppo when war broke out. How she completed that last year without running water, electricity or internet access. How she wanted to continue studying, but couldn’t do this in Syria.
She was volunteering in a local hospital, carrying out emergency first aid while injured people waited for doctors, when she decided to start applying to go abroad.
‘You’ll never get out.’ That is what people around her would say. The UK University applications process is a mystery to most people in the UK, let alone if you’re applying from abroad.
She tells me about finding the Asfari Foundation, a charity that helps talented young students in Syria to study in the UK. UEA is one of four UK Universities that works with the foundation, and together they organised an interview for her, to let her try to get her place on an MSc here. The competition was tough, but when she got the place, the Asfari Foundation agreed to fund her study.
Despite having the place at UEA, and the funding for her tuition and living costs, the UK government rejected her VISA application. She explains to me that once you get a rejection against your name, you are unlikely to be accepted on reapplication. It’s like having a black mark next to your name.
Understanding this, UEA’s International Office supported her appeal to get the rejection overturned. Without them, she tells me, she simply would not be here.
The MSc was tough, but she was determined to stay on for a PhD. She began to organise to sell her family’s business back in Syria to cover her tuition fees, but before she could, the building was bombed, and her family lost everything.
UEA stepped in again and offered to fund her PhD. She managed to start her studies in September 2016, and is now a few months in to her project on cancer research.
I ask her how the degree is going so far, and she smiles when she says ‘Good’. I ask her about her family – whether any of them are still stuck in Syria – and she tells me that some of them are in Turkey, some in Syria. She does not elaborate. I sense that she’s not looking for simple pity or sympathy from me. This is her life, and she’s sharing it so I understand the full complexity of the situation she’s in.
I ask her what she wants to tell people at UEA. ‘You don’t have to help with money,’ is the first thing she tells me. She explains that Syrian refugees need so much more. They need respect, not your pity, they need understanding, not your guilt. When refugees arrive here they need outreach and support from the local community: they need to be recognised as people.
You can also give your time. She tells me about a NGO called Jusoor, who help children and young adults in Syria to get education and realise their potential. They need volunteers who can mentor students through the UK University applications process, help Syrians decide on which University will suit them, and share their own experiences of studying.
We can also ask the government to increase the number of Article 26 Scholarships available. Article 26 Scholarships are available to students from asylum-seeking backgrounds who don’t have access to Student Finance, but they’re not able to offer many. UEA offers one for undergraduates, and one to postgraduates. They are not enough. Education is key to rebuilding a country.
Syrian Crisis Fundraising Week will be starting next week, running from 6-10 February. We have everything from film screenings to society events to fundraising opportunities. We want to raise awareness among UEA students that the crisis in Syria isn’t something that’s happening in a bubble on the other side of the world – its effects are here, changing the lives of our fellow students. And we – you – have the power to do something about it.
All proceeds from Syrian Crisis Awareness Week will be donated to the Red Cross Syria Crisis Appeal.