10 Jun 2016

Resilience and strength in response to the refugee crisis

Spotlight2016-announcementThe first day of the Spotlight Seminar is behind us, and what a truly inspiring day it has been. EAIE President Laura Howard opened the day by reiterating the key role that the higher education community can play in the response to this crisis. Remarkable speakers set the tone for the productive discussions that followed the Opening Plenary. The day’s last plenary added the voices of the affected to the echoing sounds of hope, drive and willingness that were heard throughout this past Thursday in Amsterdam.


 
Opening Plenary keynote speaker Ayselin Yildiz, from Yasar University in Turkey, discussed how definitions of migration status – eg refugee, asylum seeker, irregular migrant – are important to how we view and engage with displaced persons. Most European practitioners would argue that the Geneva Convention clearly defines who is in need of international protection. Yet Ayselin suggests that even in the societies where the convention is embraced, the different ways in which migrants are categorised have a direct impact on how inclusive integration policies are.

Values in higher education

Of the role that higher education should play in this crisis, Ayselin sees a threefold focus: taking responsibility to protect displaced persons; helping to shape policy and perception; and, finally, stimulating long-term peace building. Speaking of the refugee situation in Turkey, she pointed to the complexity of finding solutions for integrating refugees into higher education that do not also unintentionally alienate the local population. Preferential university admissions in the south of Turkey – one of the most affected areas – for instance, caused much uproar among people for whom admission exams are a great barrier for entry into higher education. The same issue was raised by a participant from the University of Basel in the Q&A, reinforcing the complexity of implementing solutions – even those created with the best of intentions.
 
In the keynote address that followed, speaker Helena Lindholm from the University of Gothenburg urged the crowd to consider why our sector should be getting involved with this issue by pointing to the core values of higher education:
“We have responsibility based on human rights, humanitarian principles, and academic freedom.”
 
Moreover, Helena made clear that not integrating refugees into our schools, universities and work places would be a true waste of human capital. Speaking of the place that refugees have always had in Swedish society, Helena reminded us that it was Yugoslavian refugees that were once largely responsible for saving the country’s shipyard industry. “One day, we may say that this generation saved the teacher crisis in Sweden”.

Getting creative

Throughout the day, many creative ways to circumvent procedures in order to make integration easier were shared – further encouraging colleagues to not give up on finding alternate solutions when faced with barriers. In the Q&A, a participant from Leiden University shared an anecdote about the institution’s mobile educator initiative, which places refugee teachers in teaching positions. Rather than asking for proof of qualifications, a simple intake meeting was enough: “within minutes you knew that you were speaking to a colleague”.
 
Not having papers at hand is an inevitable burden of the refugee condition, yet Helena reminded us that while “we can all recognise that the process of accepting refugees is a challenge, the challenge is felt primarily by refugees themselves”. The main message was that, difficult as it may be at times to find adequate solutions to integrating refugees, the rewards for individuals, institutions and societies make it a worthwhile pursuit.  To those feeling discouraged by bureaucracy, Ayselin is clear:
 
“Thinking ‘how will I admit these students to my university?’ is a very short-term perspective. We, the practitioners, need to act. We need to push. If we wait for policymakers to push us, we will not be able to face this crisis.”
“Practitioners always find a way, because you know the rules very well and you know how to get around them to get things done.”

Voices that matter

After the day’s three Break-out sessions – on admissions, integration into society, and development initiatives – participants came together once again to hear from those affected by displacement. As many readers will know, through programmes like Scholars at Risk and the Foundation for Refugee Students UAF, at-risk students and scholars can continue their work and studies in a safe location. Three at-risk individuals to speak in the afternoon – a public health student from Rwanda, a gender scholar from Iran and an archaeologist from Syria – relayed their experiences of taking part in such programmes.
 
While their experiences and circumstances were rather diverse, issues of safety, guilt for leaving their families and friends behind, loneliness, gaps in knowledge and language difficulties were common themes. After the many different issues to come up in the Q&A, a concluding thought from the Rwandan student made for a fitting closing to the day:
 
“Don’t think ‘what’s in it for me?’ I hope that [integrating refugees into higher education] comes from a compassionate heart that asks ‘what can I do to help people to live their lives’?”

It’s only the beginning

Many months into this crisis, the time is ripe for us to learn from one another. As a priority area for the EAIE, the discussions taking place in this Seminar will live on in Liverpool, where our ‘Refugees in focus’ track will continue to encourage our European higher education sector to respond to this crisis. EAIE Liverpool 2016 may only be taking place in September, but here on the blog you will have an opportunity to peek at the all-important take-aways from this essential meeting in Amsterdam. Stay tuned for a brand new blog post on the Seminar’s second day, to be published this coming Monday.