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Refugee scholars in Europe face tremendous obstacles. Now some universities are trying to change that.
In 2015 nineteen-year-old Oxford University sophomore, Paul Ostwald, a native German, was volunteering in the refugee camps on the Greek island of Lesbos when the idea came to him. Ostwald was deeply moved by the plight of the migrants fleeing by the hundreds of thousands from the world’s war zones and crisis regions to Europe. But he felt that his talents and energy might be better put to use on something other than assembling bunk beds.
Chatting with the newcomers to Lesbos, it struck him how incredibly diverse and rich their backgrounds were. These people, whom the West simply knew as “migrants” or “refugees,” were also dentists, social workers, students, and scholars. “The way they were portrayed in the media, the refugees were a black box. People were scared to live next to refugees because they didn’t know anything about them. In fact, they had lives and professions before leaving that weren’t all that different than ours,” he explains.
Less than 1 percent of all refugees manage to gain access to higher education.
In order to combat the stereotype of the desperate, impoverished, faceless refugee, Ostwald left Greece determined to start a journal at Oxford showcasing the work of university researchers and scholars who had been forced to flee their homes, whose study or careers had been upended by the turbulence in their homelands and by their flight. He raised the money (a German scholarship foundation bankrolled the first issue), put together a team (including his roommate, cofounder Mark Barclay), and sent out a call for submissions via the Internet and social media. The result, The Journal of Interrupted Studies, ran its first issue in the summer of 2016. Last week the journal launched a supplemental blog, Interruptions, with the goal of providing a wider and more immediate platform for the publishing of scholarship by displaced scholars, as well as work about the intersection of scholarship and refugeeism.
Focused on the social sciences, the inaugural print issue included contributions from a Jordanian political scientist living in the United States; a Gambian doctoral candidate in Turin, Italy; an Ethiopian economist stranded in Frankfurt, Germany; and a Syrian literature professor. Topics ranged from the causes of the war in Syria to the role of the commons in rural West Africa.
An undergraduate, Ostwald recognized that he was hardly qualified to assess the journal’s submissions, so he assembled an academic board of some twenty peer reviewers from Oxford and elsewhere. In order not to let the stories of flight and hardship influence the reviewers, he mentioned nothing of the submitters’ backgrounds, even though some of the papers were written in camps and others remained incomplete because of hardship.
Universities want to help displaced students and researchers, but they’re not in touch with the reality of their circumstances.
“The language of academia is universal, kind of like football,” says Ostwald. “If you don’t know the stories behind the authors, it could be anyone. This tears down boundaries. The works were all judged by their quality alone.”
The journal’s authors and its content highlight the potential that refugees harbor for our societies, says Ostwald. Yet less than 1 percent of all refugees manage to gain access to higher education. Europe is no exception. German universities, for example, have been quick to introduce special conditions for exiled students and professional academics to audit classes, but they have been reticent to design new rules or create scholarships that would enable migrants to matriculate at established programs or to teach or research in their fields.
“The offerings for displaced people are just small projects that serve the prestige of the universities, basically done for the purpose of media attention,” explains Merle Becker of Academic Experience Worldwide (aeWorldwide), a German NGO that helps migration-displaced academics get their careers back on track. “It’s been very disappointing,” she says.
Becker says that for years her organization pushed German universities to modify their requirements to better suit qualified refugees, but until the big waves of migration in 2015, none of the universities would give her the time of day. While there has been a flurry of activity since then, none of it has benefitted the bulk of the displaced people the NGO works with, she says.
“Most of the displaced academics live outside the city, so they have to pay to travel into the city to the university. But they don’t have the money to do this,” she says, citing one of the obstacles to auditing classes. Of course, language is also an enormous barrier. Even for those fortunate enough to get into a German language course, the standard language programs for refugees do not teach academic German.
A new program initiated by Hessen, a state in western Germany, provides scholarship money for migrants who have received political asylum in Germany, but stipulates that they cannot have been in the country for more than three years. “The problem is that the process to receive political asylum can take two or even three years or more,” says Becker, referring to the legal hurdles that establish an applicant’s claims of political persecution. “They want to do something with displaced students and researchers but they’re not in touch with the reality of their circumstances,” she continues.
If the journal was just for refugees, wasn’t it reinforcing the identity of the authors as refugees foremost?
Yet there are circuitous paths to academe for exiles, such as the one taken by Syrian citizen Ahmad Mobayed, one of the journal’s author. Mobayed fled western Syria in 2012, after having completed high school with grades that normally would have qualified him for college. Living in Istanbul for the next three years, he was unable to win a scholarship there to study. But thanks to study he did through Kiron Open Higher Education—a Berlin-based program that uses MOOCs to help displaced students fulfill the prerequisites to enter a bachelor’s program—Mobayed was awarded a full scholarship to the Bard College Berlin program.
As roundly as the journal has been praised, not all of its authors were entirely comfortable with the product. Ethiopian economist Mesfin Mulugeta Woldegriorgis (who has a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees) initially thought that the journal was an accredited scholarly publication, not a publication for refugees that included the work of undergraduates, too. Upon learning this, Woldegriorgis thought twice about having the journal publish his study of management models in Sub-Saharan Africa. If the journal was just for refugees and not recognized as an accredited publication, wasn’t it reinforcing the identity of the authors as refugees foremost, and devaluing his work as substandard, unworthy of publication in an established scholarly journal?
But Woldegriorgis overcame his reservations. Since then, and with the help of Academic Experience Worldwide, which provided him with advanced German language instruction and coached him along the way, he has been accepted into the economics PhD program at Goethe University Frankfurt. He has since resumed his studies—not as a refugee but as one economist among others.
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