Refugee scholar explores passion for refugee inclusion and solidarity

Ousmane Sow is a Mauritanian refugee student, a champion for refugees' rights, solidarity and inclusion in Senegal.

Ousmane Sow, 23, is an accounting and finance student at the Catholic University of West Africa in Dakar, Senegal.
© UNHCR/Josefine Brons

Ousmane was born a refugee in Senegal, but his mother’s vivid recollection of how their family fled persecution 31 years ago has shaped his vision for a better and more equitable world, especially for refugees.

The 23-year-old accounting student has always had a curious mind.

“When I was little, I wanted to become a banker. I would wonder why banks wouldn’t just produce money and give them to people. I thought that would be a way to fight poverty,” he laughs.

Now in his third year of studying accounting and finance at the Catholic University of West Africa (UCAO) in  Dakar, Senegal, the DAFI scholar is not just about his academics – he champions against inequality and discrimination and advocates for social inclusion of refugees and migrants at his university and in the larger society.

“I want to raise awareness about inequality and discrimination.”

“I want to raise awareness about inequality and discrimination, to help people cherish our cultural diversity and strengthen our solidarity,” he adds.

Ousmane is learning about the very system that seemed to be an omnipotent source of opportunity during his childhood. 

“In a world of inequality, you must either be someone who makes decisions or is able to influence those who do, to make a change,” he says, adding that he plans to put what he learns into practice by starting his own firm.

Thanks to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency’s DAFI scholarship programme, the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative, Ousmane proceeded to university, giving his family much relief as they were unable to support him beyond secondary education.  

For many refugee students, accessing university is a huge challenge – only 3 per cent of refugees worldwide are enrolled in university, compared to one third of young people of university age around the world. In West and Central Africa, less than 1 per cent of refugees can access higher education. There are currently 732 DAFI scholars studying in West and Central Africa, 51 of whom are based in Senegal. The scholarship covers their tuition fees, study materials and other costs like food, transport and accommodation. 

Ousmane is active in the university’s student community – he campaigned for a candidate at the student union’s presidential elections and has worked with students of different nationalities to put cultural diversity and inclusion at the heart of student politics. 

“We need to ensure that everyone feels at home. No one should be discriminated against because of their ethnicity or appearance,” he explains.

His message resonates at UCAO, where students across West Africa study side by side. But for Ousmane, the larger objective is to bring together refugees at UCAO, as they often fear being excluded and being singled out. 

“I think part of the solution is for refugees to openly accept their heritage and sensitise others on the need for inclusion and solidarity,” he continues.

As the former President of the DAFI Club, he continues to advocate for refugees to unite and make their voices heard. But he understands that some people may be afraid to speak up – his own mother, remembering the persecution that caused her and her husband to flee, often worries about her son’s outspoken nature but he is quick to reassure her.

Beyond university, he wants to contribute to his community and show solidarity, a value that’s more crucial now than before, when the world is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic. He volunteered with Cent Etudiants Volontaires (CEV), a student movement that sensitises the population on curbing the spread of the virus. 

During the day, Ousmane works in the fields to support local farmers and in the evening, he gives online classes to young students who have been out of school since last March. He drew inspiration for this initiative from a tutoring scheme he co-organises at UCAO, allowing him to use his skills to help young people who don’t have access to education.

“Refugees should not be excluded or underestimated in the countries where they find refuge.”

Ousmane is the only one in his family to complete secondary education and his efforts have helped him support his two younger brothers, his older sister and his mother who live in Keur Massar, on the outskirts of Dakar. 

He is grateful for the chance to continue learning and the opportunities that have come with it.

“I strongly believe in the importance of education for inclusion. The DAFI programme is a beautiful initiative because it changes lives,” says Ousmane who wants to continue exposing people to the realities of what it means to be a refugee.

“Forced to flee violence and persecution, refugees are not always able to return home. They should not be excluded or underestimated in the countries where they find refuge,” he adds.