We don’t make our country stronger by forcing refugees into desperation

When women come to our shores for help, we owe them a chance to rebuild their lives, writes Natasha Walter.

Today a document was published that contains more misery, line by line, than one can easily comprehend. The report of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Asylum Support for Children and Young People, to give it its full title, shows how families who have come to this country to seek sanctuary find themselves trapped in grinding poverty.

The panel for the inquiry heard from a mother who had to walk home from hospital after giving birth because she had no money for the bus; from mothers who go to bed hungry after giving their children their only food; from mothers who have to sleep on the floors of churches or mosques because they are left homeless.

Alongside many others who work with refugees, I have met women like these and been shocked by their day-to-day struggle to survive. What also shocks me is the way that their suffering is too often entirely invisible. These women and children tend to live as ghosts in our cities, hardly seen or heard by others. To combat that invisibility, Women for Refugee Women has recently been working with mothers who have sought sanctuary in the UK to tell their stories.

One woman who has told her story on our blog, Mariana (not her real name), lived destitute with her child for five years. She fled to this country from persecution in Angola, but was refused asylum here and then was not entitled either to work or to access support.

“When I came out of hospital after having my baby,” she told us, “I went to social services. I walked in holding my son. He was just three months old. The manager of the social services told me that they cannot help failed asylum seekers. She said that the only support they can provide was to take my baby to another family. That made me so frightened that I felt sick. I remember leaving the office and walking down the street, crying and holding my baby and wondering what I should do.

"I could not give my baby son to a stranger. I went to another friend, but she wasn’t really a friend. She told me I could sleep on the floor. It was cold and hard and my son and I were awake much of the night. In the day I didn’t have a key to her home so I was walking the freezing streets. My back hurt very badly from the birth and I still had high blood pressure, so I often felt faint. But I had to walk and walk all day, or sit on a park bench, or maybe in a library for a few hours.”

This story is the Cathy Come Home of our times. Luckily, Mariana does now have leave to remain, but she cannot forget all the days, months and years when she and her son were locked out of normal life.

Another woman, Helen, blogs with us about her day to day life bringing up her three children. Helen fled to this country for safety after being imprisoned in Ethiopia for her political activities. “We get £60 a week to live on, for all four of us,” she has said. “Buying food must come first. I go to the cheapest supermarkets and buy huge bags of pasta and tins of tomatoes. Travel really eats up the money.”

Helen shares stories of what it is like trying to get the children to hospital when one of them is ill, and how they rely on gifts from friends and charities for everything from toys to boots. She longs to be able to contribute herself. “I do dream of getting leave to remain here, so I can work,” she says. “I remember that as a young woman I used to laugh and laugh in a very free way and I don’t hear myself laughing like that anymore. It does feel as if I am stuck somewhere.”

Absurdly, Helen has been waiting 9 years now for leave to remain; an innocent victim of the well-documented chaos in the UK Border Agency.

Mariana and Helen remind me that women who come here seeking refuge may have fled experiences that we can hardly imagine, but they are women just like you and I. They want to protect and nurture their children, they have their own dreams and desires for the future. We don’t make our country stronger and better by forcing women like this into such desperation, we just make it crueller and nastier.

Sarah Teather MP and the others on the panel for today’s report have made sensible recommendations which should be immediately implemented. Asylum support levels are set too low to start with; cashless systems of support are far too restrictive for families and it should never happen that asylum seeking families are prevented from accessing even basic support and end up in complete destitution. Above all we need a change of culture. This is not about opening our borders, but simply ensuring that when people come here fleeing for their lives, we give them a fair hearing and a chance to rebuild their lives, rather than victimising them further.

Photograph: Getty Images

Natasha Walter is the founder of Women for Refugee Women, @4refugeewomen

Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".