Refugees in focus: A refugee voice

Refugees in focus: A refugee voice

Hasina Shirzad is an Afghan refugee student living in Norway. With no official documentation proving her qualifications, Hasina began reaching out to universities with the hopes of studying to return to her career as a journalist. She was accepted, but can only study single subjects at this time. She is still working to have her qualifications recognised, and hopes to begin working towards a Master’s degree soon. For this ‘Refugee in focus’ blog post, Hasina shared her story with us. Learn what was helpful to her, and in which areas HEIs can improve.

Who is a refugee? Does being a refugee plunder your identity as an individual? 

By definition: A refugee is anyone who flees their home country due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

“I am a refugee.” I said this for the first time in the reception of the police station in Oslo. Before saying this, I had searched for the right entrance for three hours. The struggle of that day is a story in itself.

The sentence “I am a refugee” robbed me of my identity of being an educated, top of my class journalist. Instead, I became one of thousands of refugees, just a number. I did not realize at first, but my situation had become my identity.

Who were you before you were a refugee?

I was born in Kabul. Afghanistan has been at war for more than three decades. When I was five years old, the Taliban came. I had to study in secret at home. After the Taliban left, I went to school and eventually to the Journalism Faculty of Kabul University. I have worked as a journalist since my second year at university. I am a motivated person, always working hard and giving my best. After graduation, I went to work with the Election Commission of Afghanistan. In May 2014, I was injured by a bomb while going to work and was hospitalized for seven months. I fled to Norway as a refugee. I soon realized that I had lost my identity.

How can you regain your identity?

Your identity is how people in society know you. It was hard to be seen as something other than an asylum seeker. To receive something from society, you have to offer something in return. I had nothing to offer but my knowledge. I decided to regain my identity by using my knowledge.

What were your challenges?

I first had to learn how public transportation works in Norway and how to save money so that I could travel from Larvik to Oslo. I learned about the requirements to enter Norway’s educational system. To enroll, you must have permission to reside in the country. After the start of the ‘refugee crisis’, receiving a quick decision was unlikely. I struggled to keep hope alive. Other Afghans told me to forget my previous studies, to start learning Norwegian and start doing odd jobs. I was not convinced. I started reaching out to local universities. Unfortunately, they all required a permission of stay as well as proof of proficiency in Norwegian, via the Norsk B2 language test. At this point, I felt tired, depressed and fearful that I would never regain my identity.

The turning point

Around this time, I heard about an information workshop at the University of Oslo (UiO) in cooperation with Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences (HIOA). I attended the workshop, where I met the rector of HIOA. He asked me: “What do you do?” I answered: “I am a refugee.” The rector asked again: “Yes, but what do you do?” Finally, I answered truly, not as a refugee. I performed voluntary jobs at HIOA whenever I could, although travel expenses were a challenge.

In April 2016, I received permission to stay in Norway. In September 2016, I received a scholarship from HIOA to study single-subject courses in English. It wasn’t easy, but HIOA Professor Elisabeth Eide helped me. I studied as much as I could. I was also part of the introductory programme at NAV, a skilled-training programme run by the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Service at HIOA. It was challenging to fit both my studies and the NAV programme into my schedule. Between the two I had little downtime, but I was happy, and I passed with a B.

Future challenges

I have started studying Norwegian and I am currently taking the Journalism on Globalization, War and Peace course at HIOA. I’m also applying for a Master’s programme next semester. At HIOA, there are no Master’s programmes taught entirely in English, so I will need to pass the Norwegian B2 language test. The University of Oslo has an even stricter set of entrance regulations.

I am also in the process of having my degree from Kabul University recognised by NOKUT, the Norwegian ENIC-NARIC.  I will most likely have to go through the recognition procedure for persons without verifiable documentation, the so-called UVD-procedure.

How can HEIs improve?

  • I would ask for a more flexible system. Eg in Norway, those who have participated in the Academic Dugnad should be allowed to register as students after proving themselves for a semester or two.
  • I would also suggest closer cooperation between HEIs and other relevant organisations. Eg in Norway, a closer cooperation between UiO and HIOA would be needed. This would save students from going through the same struggles twice.
  • Finally, the period of help given to students should be extended. Eg for Academic Dugnad students, the period should be extended from one to two years.

Learn more about how to facilitate admissions for refugees without official documentation by signing up for the workshop taking place at the EAIE Annual Conference in Seville. The workshop will present best practices that have been tested in Europe, Turkey and the USA in the evaluation of the education backgrounds in order to integrate refugees at your HEI. 

Special thanks to Elke van der Valk and Tove Knudsen for editing this piece. Elke is Adviser Internationalisation at Fontys University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. Tove is Senior Adviser at NOKUT/Norwegian ENIC-NARIC. Photo courtesy of Vigdis Sofie Sandbæk.

This post is part of the EAIE’s ‘Refugees in focus’ series, which covers refugee integration from a variety of angles.