UK

How This Free University Course For Syrian Refugees Is Integrating Them Into Britain

From being held at gunpoint by 'mafia' smugglers to a new life on the English south coast.

14/05/2017 07:02 BST | Updated 16/05/2017 10:42 BST

When i* found out he had been accepted onto a scholarship scheme in the UK for Syrian refugees, he threw a party.

“I was so excited,” he says. “To speak the language, that’s most important.”

Sayid is a 26-year-old refugee from Syria, who made his new home in Britain and is currently half-way through an English language course at the University of Sussex.

He applied to a special programme that offers scholarships to Syrian refugees in which the £10,000 fee is waived, to complete an intensive diploma.

Successful applicants get either 15 or 21 hours of tuition a week and learn grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing and speaking skills.

“Obviously, if you are living in England and you don’t speak English it’s so strange,” he says. 

I want to study here so obviously I need to learn. Not only to study, to have a normal life, to have a chat with people, even if someone ask you in the street you could answer.” Sayid

Sayid studied computer engineering at school in Syria for two years, and at college for a further two, but had his life and studies disrupted by the outbreak of civil war.

On his journey to Britain, he recalls being held at gunpoint by “mafia” traffickers. “If you don’t listen to them they shoot you - it’s easy. Nobody controls them.”

He also had to carry unaccompanied children on his shoulders, because the snow was almost a metre deep on the crossing from Croatia to Italy. “I will never forget this,” he says.

But now given refuge in the UK, his place on a scholarship scheme is doing more than just teaching him English - it’s making him feel British.

“We’re learning a lot - grammar, I’m a little bit bad with grammar. But I’m much better than before. Now, after fourteen weeks of studying, I’m much much better than before.”

“Obviously, if you are living in England and you don’t speak English it’s so strange.

“I have a friend, they’ve been here for 6 years and they couldn’t speak anything. For example, if they want to go to the shop to buy a cigarette they just say ‘give me a cigarette’ and that’s it. They don’t speak anything more.

“In my case, I want to study here so obviously I need to learn. Not only to study, to have a normal life, to have chat with people, even if someone asks you [something] in the street you could answer. If you want to call your company to fix something, you don’t need to have a help, you can do it by yourself, so it’s really important to have the native language.”

HuffPost UK
Sayid: I wish for all my kind, for all Syrian people, to get this opportunity to study

Sayid adds that being on the English course has helped him feel more like a native Brit, and less like a refugee.

“In the beginning I felt like a refugee, but not anymore,” he says. “I’m not a refugee. I’m speaking the language, I have English friends, so I don’t feel anymore like I’m a refugee. I just feel like I’m one part of this country.”

He works part-time in a fish and chip shop, but hopes to get accepted onto a degree course to fulfil his dream of working of working as a computer engineering.

“As I get this benefit, I wish for all my kind, for all Syrian people, to get this opportunity to study. Not only for academic, for general life.

“For example, to not staying all day at home because he couldn’t speak the language. To be inside the British people - to be one of them. If you don’t speak the language there’s no way to be one of them.”

Farhood* is another recipient of the Syrian refugee scholarship programme. He was in school in Aleppo for nine years before his education was disrupted and he was forced to leave the country.

He fled to Turkey, where he worked for two and a half years, but eventually was given refugee status in England, along with his sister.

“I have learnt a lot of things, because when I came here I didn’t know anything,” Farhood says. “Just, I was, know little bit English. Now my English has improved but I think it will improve more.”

HuffPost UK
Farhood: I stopped learning because the life there is very difficult

“I’m so glad here for new studying, new life, and new people.”

Dr Linda Morrice, an academic at the University of Sussex who has advised the Home Office on integration policy, later told HuffPost UK that giving refugees two tools - a qualification and the ability to speak English - was vital in helping them integrate into their host country.

“English language generally is absolutely the key building block to establishing your life in a new country, in this case, in the UK,” she said.

“Our research has shown that it’s connected to better health and wellbeing, you’re more likely to be employed, you’re more likely to understand the British culture, you’re more likely to have contacts with British people and, importantly, positive contacts with British people. So it facilitates 2 way exchanges between cultures.”

But she warned that the Government’s provision was “very patchy” for giving refugees who settle here English classes.

“At the moment there is a push to find employment as soon as possible, which of course is important because self-sufficiency is important and one of the goals of the refugees themselves and of integration strategies,” she said.

But there’s not enough support to enable people to move into careers that they had previously done or wanted to do, and they’re moved into employment very quickly.”

HuffPost UK
Dr Linda Morrice has advised the Home Office on refugee integration

“Which actually conflicts with language learning, because as soon as you move into employment you don’t get free language classes anymore.

“So people move into employment where there’s a low expectation of lang - care, agricultural, night staff, security guards, cleaning jobs - where they don’t need to speak very good English so they don’t need to learn on the job.

“So there’s conflicting policy goals there: moving into employment or learning English.”

Dr Morrice added: “It’s going to come down to a will and finances - we’re in uncertain times, we’re just having another election, and at the moment I think it’s quite low on the priority agenda.

Things tend to focus around the numbers of refugees and not actually what happens here, once they’ve got here, rather than the integration.” Dr Morrice

Dr Morrice added that she wants to see language scholarships like the Sussex one extended to refugees from other countries.

“I think there’s a moral economy in terms of refugees,” she said, “where some are considered more deserving than others and I think that’s terribly sad.

“We see the pictures on Syria, day after day on our TV screens and so there’s obviously an outpouring of sympathy towards Syrian refugees, but there are other refugees: there are Eritrean refugees, there are refugees from other countries, Afghanistan, who are fleeing equally terribly circumstances and situations.

“To make that distinction between nationality seems to me a great shame and a missed opportunity to reaching out to wider range of refugees.”

*Sayid and Farhood’s real names have been altered to protect their identity.

HuffPost UK is looking at voters’ priorities outside the hubbub of the election campaign trail and what they want beyond March 29, 2019, not just June 8, 2017Beyond Brexit leaves the bubble of Westminster and London talk to Britons left out of the conversation on the subjects they really care about, like housing, integration, social care, school funding and air quality.