Higher education: A powerful tool to build a future in a new home

“In 2013, all my hard work paid off and I won a place at Manchester University. Walking through the grounds on my first day was quite possibly the happiest I had been in my life. I couldn’t stop smiling as I queued to get my ID card; I don’t think I have ever been so excited to be in a long line of people all shuffling forward at a snail’s pace…Part of me felt like an imposter, as if at any moment I might be unmasked as a fraud and ignominiously marched from this elite institution.”

–  Gulwali Passarlay, “The Lightless Sky”

Anyone who’s been to university has felt this way—at least I definitely did. I had worked hard, got good grades through high school, had the support of my parents, applied to my university of choice and was selected among thousands. But somehow on that first day you’re conflicted: you are excited, but it doesn’t quite feel real.

For Gulwali, his journey to that point was drastically different.

When Gulwali was 12 years old his mother told him and his brother to leave his home in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan and “never come back.” After more than a year of travel through Iran, Turkey, being jailed, sent back across borders, risking his life in dangerous boats, trucks, Gulwali arrived in the UK. His struggles, however, didn’t end there. He was told he was lying about his age, wasn’t allowed to live with his brother for a time and denied asylum.

He felt hopeless. Even when he was started to feel comfort in the UK, when he started youth groups, made friends, he still was mentally plagued by the demons he gained during his journey.

Even throughout this difficult time, Gulwali describes himself as an eager student. He was even made school captain at the education centre he was attending at age 14.

Years later, his asylum claim was finally recognised by the British authorities and he was accepted into Manchester University. He says getting his papers wasn’t his happiest day, it was rather on his first day at university when he could see his future ahead of him.

Gulwali’s story (as told in his incredible biography “The Lightless Sky”) is certainly and extraordinary example of the resilience of a teenager, but there are many others his age from many different countries who face the same struggles throughout their journey and seek a future.

For Gulwali, his future was through education, through learning about and sharing his intelligence with the world. This is why SB OverSeas has launched an initiative to connect young people, like Gulwali, to opportunities for their future in higher education.

Since January, a small team and I have been researching and mapping higher education pathways for people with refugee status in Belgium as well as opportunities for our community in Lebanon to seek higher education.

The idea is to create a database of information so that anyone with status in Belgium can see all the information in one place. College applications are complicated to begin with, the terminology, different programmes, qualifications, etc. but also the system in Belgium is a bit more so because of the separation of the Flemish and Wallonian regions. The goal of this initiative to streamline this complexity and act as a guide for refugees looking for higher education as a way forward in their future.

While our research is ongoing, we need your help:

  • Are you a current or former university student at a Belgian university or college with refugee status?
  • Are you a former university student who still has connections with the institution and can help us create a network to support future refugee students?
  • Are you just interested, know about higher education systems, have experience in research or other technical skills and want to help out?

Your help would invaluable to seeing this project into fruition. Please contact me directly at hq.campaign@sboverseas.org if you’re interested, want to share any information or have any questions.

The project is motivated by seeing the potential of the youth we work with on the weekends with SB Espoir, the children in our catch-up schools and youth in empowerment programmes in Lebanon as well as stories around the world that resonate with Gulwali’s.

At his lowest moments, he would hear the words of his father saying to him, “life is an education Gulwali.”