What does the word ‘refugee’ mean to you? In 2016, it was reported by the UN that a record 65 million people had been forced from their homes by war and persecution*. This means that one in every 113 people is a refugee.
These are not unfamiliar statistics, as the media continues to cover the refugee crisis, but is acknowledging the statistics enough or should we be doing more to help?
One school that is actively engaged with refugees is UWC Atlantic College. The college, an independent residential sixth form with an international IB Diploma Programme, is designed to promote international understanding and make education a force to unite nations.
Today, the college has pupils from over 90 countries and more than half of those students receive some form of financial help, ensuring that 16–19-year-olds from a diverse background can experience life at the college. Some of those students identify themselves as refugees, as they have fled war-torn countries to find safety and peace. UWC Atlantic College is not shying away from the problems in the world, they are putting a face to the statistics.
“I have so much to say, and at the end I will think, oh I wish I had said that and this,” smiled Mohammed Akel, a first-year student at UWC Atlantic College.
Mohammed is the oldest of three siblings, his father is a mechanic and his mother has just opened a clothes shop. Mohammed is also a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon and, due to the conflict in Palestine and Israel, grew up in the country’s biggest refugee camp.
“As my family had to flee we didn’t have the Palestinian passport and we didn’t have the Lebanese passport, so we were in the middle of nowhere,” explained Mohammed. “That’s the first thing, I can’t really describe myself as Lebanese and I can’t describe myself as Palestinian, so that’s why I am a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon. That has really shaped my whole life.”
“When you entered the camp it was so interesting as it was divided up into neighbourhoods, so it was like they had created another image of their village in the camp. Inside the camp, it’s just alleyways with bad streets and houses stacked together,” he added.
Growing up in a refugee camp with hundreds of thousands of people living on top of each other, UWC Atlantic College must have felt like paradise. The college’s campus is in St Donat’s Castle estate, perched by the sea and surrounded by acres of woodland. To paint a clearer picture, it could easily be likened to Hogwarts.
“When I came to Atlantic College, it was a huge social shock to me,” admitted Mohammed. “In the camp the education system was all about memorising information and then being tested on what we had memorised. You never had a chance to think.”
As Mohammed grew up in the camp he attended a United Nations school, first a primary school, which was so small they didn’t even have a playground, and then a secondary school which he described as, “very dangerous, because this area of the camp was ruled by Islamic extremists.”
“It was a disaster, I swear, I wanted to do something but I was trapped,” said Mohammed. “In the United Nations school everything was very limited, for example there were no labs so we didn’t do science experiments, and the teachers couldn’t teach what they wanted to teach.”
A life-changing experience
Then, everything changed. During a talk at his school, Mohammed learned about United World Colleges (UWC) and he immediately felt a connection to their ethos. Consequently, Mohammed first applied when he was 15, but as he was too young he received a rejection letter. However, his passion was evident so UWC organised for him to attend a two-week short course at a college in Turkey.
“When I came back from the short course I knew that UWC was my goal,” said Mohammed. “It was a life-changing experience to meet those people from all over the world. When I came back I then started to go outside the camp more and participate in extra-curricular activities. When I talked about the course with my family and friends, they would say, ‘It was just two weeks, what can you really learn? It couldn’t have changed you that much?’ But I was like no! I had started to change, I wanted to discover the world more, explore Lebanon and talk to more people. I also started to think a lot more about identity.”
As Mohammed had a year before he would reapply to UWC Atlantic College, he decided to use his new-found knowledge. With the help of his teachers, he created a presentation for his classmates about the subjects discussed during the short course. Mohammed was determined to show others that it was important to think about what they say and do.
“I don’t want to change ideas, but I want them to think about what they are doing and why they are doing it. It shouldn’t be that something is just passed down from generation to generation,” said Mohammed. “I think that is why we have most of the conflicts back home because of all the ideas passed through the generations.”
When he finally got accepted in 2016, he described the moment as “a dream come true”. He was the first person from his district to travel to a school in a different country, so when he arrived at UWC Atlantic College, the experience was intense, but the support from the college was constant.
“I was living with people from the Netherlands, the UK and China in one room and I was like wow, what even is this?” said Mohammed about his first impressions. “But my houseparent would talk to me and see if I was okay, especially as I had some difficulties with my English at the beginning. They then enrolled me in the English Language programme at the beginning of the year and they were always more than happy to help.”
Everyone is equal
The houseparents at UWC Atlantic College are vital in ensuring that all students settle into college life successfully. Sarah Hamilton, Director of Boarding, describes her role as having an, “innate eye for detail and being able to monitor well-being, whilst providing a space for students to talk about their concerns.”
Before becoming director of boarding, Sarah was a houseparent for six years and she has seen first-hand the challenges that refugees face.
“I think language is a huge issue, as for all students, not just refugees coming from non-English speaking backgrounds, it is important that they can express themselves,” said Sarah. “However, the challenges facing refugees specifically is the guilt and anxiety of being here. They wonder, why did I get to come here? Why was it me? What if it doesn’t work out? What if I’m not good enough? They have constant worry about their families and they see coming to UWC Atlantic College as a huge responsibility.”
Sarah explained that UWC Atlantic College is also incredibly proactive when it comes to guaranteeing that refugee students have the same opportunities as everyone else. Many will arrive at the college with few belongings, so the college has encouraged the students to create a student financial support fund which they can use to help those who need extra support.
“The most important thing for me is that everyone is equal and all students have access to the same experience,” explained Sarah. “We don’t let money be a barrier.”
Although financial support is a huge part of a refugee successfully living and learning at UWC Atlantic College, Sarah and the houseparents understand that emotional support is vital.
“You have to show them empathy,” said Sarah, “We can’t try and understand what they have been through, because I think that it is almost impossible to understand what they have seen and experienced, but we can listen and help them to achieve their dreams.”
A holistic education
Alongside helping refugees like Mohammed, UWC Atlantic College has encouraged its students to engage with the local refugee community. Nidal Amir Alcalde is a Spanish and Arabic teacher and is part of a dedicated team of UWC Atlantic College staff members who have been working with refugees for the last seven years.
“A few years ago, even before the crisis happened, I started to think about helping refugees,” explained Nidal. “I talked to some of the students about it and they immediately agreed that they would love to help.”
This enthusiasm led Nidal to Student Action for Refugees (STAR), a national charity made up of over 35 groups at universities across the UK, and Oasis Cardiff, a centre to support asylum seekers and refugees. Nidal contacted the president of STAR to see how they could help and the organisation responded positively, as by UWC Atlantic College students becoming involved it might encourage them to work with STAR at university too.
“They could see my vision,” said Nidal. “It was a way to start something a lot bigger. The college’s ethos is to educate the person more than the student as we try to promote a holistic education. By volunteering with STAR and Oasis Cardiff every week they get an awareness of how important it is to do their bit and help the community.”
We have a global responsibility to take care of each other, and your nationality or your passport doesn’t change your value as a human being
One student who is passionate about using her skills to give back to the local community is Alina Glaubitz. Alina, who is half Russian and half German, is in her second year at UWC Atlantic College and attended the two-hour sessions at Oasis Cardiff every week, as she wanted to use her education to contribute to solving global issues. During the sessions, Alina taught English and she found that as well as using her own skills she was gaining new ones too.
“During the sessions, it taught me to be very flexible and adapt to the needs of the refugee and their interests,” explained Alina. “I really enjoyed talking to them about what is going on back home as I also learnt more about political situations and what life is really like.”
This yearning to understand global issues is embedded in the college’s staff and students. Far too often residential environments like UWC Atlantic College are unfairly judged as taking young people away from the real world. The reality is, these students are facing the issues head on.
“That’s why I wanted to do this service, I wanted to bring myself closer to the issue,” said Alina. “We have a global responsibility to take care of each other, and your nationality or your passport doesn’t change your value as a human being.”
Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone had Alina’s attitude?
“It’s beautiful really,” said Nidal, “The students got so into it that they came to me and said they wanted to start a whole week where they work with refugees.”
Consequently, Refugee Project Week was born, an annual event where students spend a week supporting refugees in Cardiff. During the week, the college invites 75 refugees to the college for a full day of food, games, swimming, castle tours and most importantly, conversation with students and staff. Plus, the students work with STAR, Oasis Cardiff and Space 4U throughout the whole week to interact with refugees through English conversation sessions and games.
This is an emotional and thought-provoking experience for all involved and Nidal explained that it made the students realise their privilege was a responsibility. These experiences have also achieved what Nidal hoped for when he first approached STAR, as former students from UWC Atlantic College have now set up STAR projects at universities across the UK.
A better future
Although UWC Atlantic College has already achieved so much, it seems that this is only the beginning, as they plan to continue helping students like Mohammed.
“The college is committed to continuing to recruit and support students from conflict and post-conflict societies, including refugees,” said Peter Howe, Principal at UWC Atlantic College.
“We think the presence of such students is critical in serving our mission to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future. The determination to work towards a better future for themselves and their communities is an inspiration to us all.”
Speaking of which, Mohammed is keen to return to Lebanon and help others in the camp, as he feels the word ‘refugee’ needs to be rethought.
“I am so determined to go back home and show them that it is important to find yourself. For me, a refugee doesn’t have to be a person that had to leave their homeland,” said Mohammed. “Anyone could be a refugee, as you could be in your own house, not feeling safe or happy. A refugee is not just a person leaving a country, it is more about a person not feeling comfortable in their environment and not feeling accepted.”
Mohammed is right, anyone could be a refugee, and thankfully UWC Atlantic College has created an environment where students are defined by their dreams and ambitions, not by a word.