Do you remember the image of two-year-old Aylan Kurdis' body on a Turkish beach, which shook social media? How did you feel when you looked at it? Did you feel angry? Sad? Powerless? I will tell you what I felt: I felt tired of seeing everyone sharing this awful image, and feeling bad. I felt that only sharing those images wouldn't help preventing more awful images from being created; it wouldn't help to change the situation. And that is what I wanted: I wanted to be able to help.
I believe that this is a first, important step needed to become what people like to call an activist; you need to have the desire to change something (hopefully to improve something). Through social media I got to know about the incredible work Citizens UK was doing to help welcome refugees and to generate pressure on the government, so I got in touch with them. When one of Citizens UK's coordinators told me about their plan to lobby UK universities to set up fully funded scholarships for Syrian refugees I knew what my role was in that: I would fight to turn Oxford into safe havens for students fleeing conflict-torn societies.
I learned from an early age that personal and professional integrity must go hand-in-hand with academic excellence. Both my high school education in Brazil and my undergraduate studies in Germany were sponsored by scholarships awarded on the dual basis of academic merit and ethical standing. Because my DPhil in Biomedical Engineering has only been made possible by the generous donation of alumni and the Oxford University, I feel very strongly about giving back to its diverse, wide-reaching community.
Through my engineering degree I have developed innovative ways to solve and tackle problems. As a result, I was able to design and set up the Oxford Students Refugee Campaign: an initiative that seeks to coordinate the efforts of student, academic and administrative members of the University of Oxford to establish comprehensive financial and welfare support for refugee and asylum-seeking students.
The main idea of the campaign is to get every student at Oxford University to pledge a monthly £1 contribution for two years. This is a small payment individually, but if every student in Oxford chose to participate, the funds could provide as many as 20 fully funded scholarships for asylum-seeking and refugee students.
With help of close friends, Emeritus Fellow Bernard Sufrin of Worcester, Den Moore, the Deputy Director of Student Administration, and Helena Kennedy, Baroness Kennedy, QC, Principal of Mansfield College, I launched the campaign last October. Through our student union (OUSU), we were able to go to the fresher's fair to spread the word about the campaign and to seek the support from the student body.
We have grown from a tiny campaign to a successful scholarship fund entirely through the support and generosity of Oxford students. We have the backing of 11,000 students, totaling a financial commitment of GBP 240,000 over two years.
The University authorities have been very receptive to the ideas so far, and are willing to back the campaign administratively. They are not only administering our fund but also have brought our initiative into the Oxford Thinking Campaign as well as into the existing Give as You Earn schemes for faculty and staff.
We (with the help of the University) have already identified eight eligible students holding offers for the coming academic year, and who would immensely benefit from the scholarships. We have yet to receive much of our funding (due to the monthly contribution), so we are now reaching out to friends, alumni, the general public (through media) and potential donors to raise enough funds to support all eight of them.
As a student myself, I believe that such a scheme will create a tremendous positive impact on these students' lives. And with the added benefit of raising the morale of the Oxford student community at large: The Oxford Refugee Campaign stands as a flagship example of how much the student body can achieve when they are concerned about and committed to improving fellow students' lives.
I had the pleasure to meet the Dalai Lama, the world's most famous refugee, when visited Oxford last year to discuss the global response to the refugee crisis. In his visit, he stated that only education, dialogue and personal contact could resolve conflicts in the long-term. I really hope that, through sustainable scholarship and welfare schemes like ours, we can turn Oxford and other academic communities around the world into safe knowledge havens for students and academics fleeing conflict-torn societies.