Welcoming student refugees will help develop vital workforce skills

Refugee students bring untapped value to our colleges and our workforce; we just have to invest in demonstrating their talents, writes Shivan Merza

Refugee students bring untapped value to our colleges and our workforce; we just have to invest in demonstrating their talents, writes Shivan Merza

10 Jul 2023, 5:00

The escalating refugee crisis was brought into focus by the incomprehensibly tragic news that a fishing boat carrying up to 750 refugees sank off the coast of Greece this month. While many are affected deeply by this news, for those of us who have made similar journeys, with a different outcome, it is uniquely painful.

I find some comfort in the role education plays in telling a different story. Reflecting on my own experience and the opportunities we’re providing across NCG, amid undeniable darkness, there are beacons of hope and support.

As project coordinator for NCG’s ‘Our Community is Your Community’ programme, I have the privilege of witnessing and contributing to the transformative power of education for refugees like me.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of November last year, the UK is sanctuary for about 231,597 individuals. The growing refugee population, catalysed by the crisis in Ukraine, brings both challenges and opportunities.

As education institutions, it is our duty to extend our support to the vulnerable, and ‘Our Community is Your Community’ is NCG’s commitment to do just that, as both a lifeline for those seeking refuge and a tool for their empowerment.

Every refugee has their own story, but the hardships they have endured don’t define them. They may have been doctors, engineers, teachers, musicians or possess other skills that require translation. Or they may just be brimming with potential.

We aim to create a safe haven where they can learn, grow, and integrate into their new society. It’s not merely about education but about creating a sense of belonging and agency over their futures. For this reason, we provide spaces for connection, such as monthly coffee mornings. At Carlisle College, this has been extremely popular, particularly with women. We also build relationships through activities such as cooking classes, sports events and charitable activities.

Amid undeniable darkness, there are beacons of hope and support

In addition, we help our students to understand and navigate the complexities of our education system and provide additional support, from navigating application processes to accessing ESOL courses and pathways to employment or university. We help them access housing and benefits, or with contacting utility suppliers.

This support extends beyond ensuring they can use the skills they’ve brought with them to also finding ways of assimilating to a new culture – one that varies from college to college and community to community. For example, in Newcastle College, we ensure our ESOL courses discuss the unique dialect of the North East, something the students appreciate.

And the help we offer doesn’t end at Newcastle, Kidderminster and Carlisle Colleges. The project is currently in action at these colleges, but all seven of NCG’s colleges share in the commitment to assist refugees. Together, we form a network of support, redefining what is possible for these storied and sometimes traumatised individuals.

Collaboration and shared learning are essential to our success. As we strive for better, we observe and learn from other institutions’ efforts to support refugees, whether that’s in education or beyond. For instance, Scotland has become a source of inspiration with its outstanding support to refugees.

Our endeavours extend beyond our campuses and beyond those who have arrived in our communities. As part of the ‘Good for Me, Good for FE’ campaign, we’ve set up donation collection points across our colleges. These stations benefit local charities including foodbanks, but they also collect donations specifically to support those who remain in Ukraine, and recently those affected by the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. It reflects our wider commitment to humanitarian efforts and shows just why colleges are community assets – here to support everyone.

Pastorally, we are a team that may have different stories, but our origins are the same. We each wanted a chance to have a better, safer life; recognising that in each other builds a deep understanding of one another.

We aim to intertwine education with empathy and community solidarity, making a tangible difference in refugees’ lives. And in that, we hope to be a source of inspiration and precedent for others.

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