How to support refugees to succeed in higher education

Eighteen years ago Rabia Nasimi made the dangerous journey to the UK with her parents and two siblings, fleeing from the Taliban in Afghanistan. Then aged just five, Rabia and her family survived a treacherous long trek across Europe, which included travelling in a refrigerated lorry and terrifying trip in an inflatable makeshift boat packed with other refugees.

Rabia has overcome her difficult start in life to succeed in higher education in the UK. She has recently started studying for her PhD in Sociology at the University of Cambridge, after completing her undergraduate degree at Goldsmiths, University of London and Masters degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Here she shares her thoughts about how schools and universities can support refugee children to succeed in education.

Providing specialist support in schools

Refugee children require distinct attention to learn English as language plays a pivotal role in the educational system and society as a whole, however, it is just as important that assisted support is provided in all other school subjects so children do not fall behind. It is also vital that children are given additional support to understand the educational system and how to navigate themselves from an early age, enabling them to plan early and set achievable goals - whether the aim is to go to university or to look at different pathways into work.

Young people and their families need to know that succeeding in higher education and finding employment is more complicated than just getting a place at university - they need to have a good understanding about their career prospects and have a longer term vision. What is often overlooked is the many avenues that exist to support young people into work such as apprenticeships, internships and training schemes. Sometimes people apply for university because that's what others are doing, and later find that university wasn't what they required for a particular profession and therefore left disappointed.

Helping the whole family

Since moving to the UK, my father, Dr Nooralhaq Nasimi, started a charity called Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA). The organisation supports refugees and asylum seekers in the UK by providing the support, skills and knowledge to live and prosper in the UK.  The provision of education is a main priority for ACAA, as well as providing English language classes, ACAA offers tailored assistance to young people and their families to help them shape their future in education and beyond. ACAA also run a Saturday school for under-achieving children, to support children along with their families.

From talking to some refugee families, it has come to my attention that many do not understand how to apply to university and what distinguishes one university to another. Many have no idea about university league tables and other intricacies of higher education. That's another way ACAA supports young people and their families, helping them with applications and finding out which course will help them achieve their chosen career.

So far I've focused on children and young people, however, it is important that the role of parents/guardians is not overlooked. We need to also support parents/ guardians. When parents struggle with understanding the language and understanding the system, they are unable to support their children as they progress through school and transition into higher education. Understanding school reports, attending parents evenings and understanding when examinations take place and their importance remains a challenge. Parents are not indifferent, they simply require more advice, guidance and support about how they can help their children whilst in education.

If parents feel distant with the educational system, it becomes difficult to manage family expectations. For example, some families might have their heart set on their child becoming a doctor, without realising that their child hasn't done the right A-levels to get accepted into medical school or hasn't achieved the necessary grades. 

This can cause disappointments and make children and young people feel hopeless. Saying that, it is also important for young people to understand that there are more routes into a profession than just having the right A-levels or achieving three straight A's. If you aren't accepted in the beginning it's not the end, be resilient and persevere. 

For example, a degree in biomedical science could lead you into studying medicine, or you can do a one-year-conversion course if you want to go into Law.  What they need to know is that the British educational system allows different pathways into education and has the flexibility to convert to different courses.

One-to-one support at university

Moving on, let's imagine, you have through all the stages and have started University. It is important that refugee students, as with all students, have good guidance and support. Supervisors and personal tutors are vitally important to give students long-term stability and support throughout their studies. On a personal level, I'm still in touch with my undergraduate supervisor from Goldsmiths and my masters supervisor from LSE, and it's great to see that the institutions where I've studied are still proud my achievements even though I've now moved to Cambridge.

Career advice should also be given more priority at university. My experience is that a lot of students don't start thinking about jobs until the last few months before they graduate. I believe that students should access careers advice regularly throughout their degree programme rather than leaving it until the last minute. It's particularly important for refugee students to practice the skills they need, such as filling in job applications and interview skills. It's also important to identify areas of interest and get involved with extra-curricula groups. 

Many of the skills I have gained have been through volunteering, so that's another great way to build your confidence and consolidate your knowledge!

With the right support, refugee children and young people can succeed in higher education. Many refugee children successfully completed their education and entered great professions - so it is possible!

If you would like to see other views on Teaching Excellence from across the sector or submit your own blog, more information is available here

Blog work area: