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Education helps refugees beat the odds

A refugee in Thailand attends Siam University through the UNHCR-DAFI programme

Education helps refugees beat the odds

A refugee in Thailand shares his story of struggle, study and eventually success through education.
14 December 2023

I was only 10 years old when I fled Pakistan with my family in 2012. My parents had suffered religious persecution and were afraid for our lives.

I was getting ready for my fourth-grade final exams, but instead of being in the exam hall, we had to leave the country. We packed our things, and the new place I was to call home was Thailand.

We reached safety, but I could never have fathomed how difficult our daily life would become. Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention nor its Protocol. Thailand does not have a national system in place to register and recognize urban refugees. Our lack of legal status meant unemployment, challenges to find affordable housing and limited access to essential services such as healthcare and education.

Everything was new and unfamiliar to us: the language, the food and the social manners. Fearing arrest, my parents only ventured outside to get basic necessities. As a child, I was not going to school, not doing any sports and had no opportunities to make friends.

A refugee in Thailand attends Siam University through the UNHCR-DAFI programme

As refugees, we relied on cash assistance from UNHCR and support from relatives to make ends meet. Still, we could hardly manage to get by, let alone rebuild our lives. So, my mother became a seamstress, which was the safest work she could do: she could do it at home and only needed to leave the house to pick up or drop off sewing commissions.

When I turned 18, I became deeply anxious about our future. For years, we had been living on the margins. Seeing my parents constantly relying on interpreters to fill out simple administrative forms, it struck me that education was essential to every aspect of life. Realizing that, I decided to start my studies over, feeding the hope that I could provide an alternative to life in the shadows.  

Since I did not speak Thai, going to a Thai school was not an option. I did some research and discovered the Cambridge International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE)/A-level programme, an internationally-recognized equivalent to a high school diploma.

Having spent eight years away from formal education, I was academically unprepared for the IGCSE curriculum. I had to translate content from English to Urdu language. Solving basic math equations and understanding science concepts was pretty hard for me. It was disheartening to feel so far behind.

"I learned valuable lessons: to never surrender hope, even when it seems there are no opportunities in sight."

When I decided to pursue the IGCSE, some neighbours advised my parents against my return to school, arguing that I had been away for too long and would fail. Nonetheless, my parents stood firmly by my side, believing in my abilities and offering their complete support. I was determined not to let them down and their trust and faith motivated me through the academic challenges.

While struggling to study, my mother’s health worried me. Since our arrival in Thailand, she was unable to get proper healthcare. In 2021, her condition deteriorated and she was diagnosed with heart disease. I was in the midst of preparing for the IGCSE exams, but I had to be there to help her. I accompanied her to all the doctor appointments, with long queues turning into study sessions. I always carried my notes with me in the hospital and spent the hours waiting reading my notes.

Finally I was ready to head to the IGCSE exam center. Fear of arrest had always been omnipresent during my life in Thailand, but the feeling was multiplied as I went to the exam. Being detained would have meant years of hard work wasted or at least stalled.

When I walked out of the examination center, I breathed a sigh of relief and headed home without looking over my shoulder. It no longer mattered if I was arrested - I had done it, filled out all the exam sheets, and now only had to wait for the result.

I was at home when I got the results: I had passed the IGCSE. The joy was short-lived however, as I was shocked by the exam fees to pursue an A-levels, which is equivalent to Years 12 to 13 and the minimum requirement to enrol in a degree program. I had studied hard and succeeded, but I did not have that much money. Thankfully, during my most difficult time, when the cost would have led me to abandon my studies, I got a scholarship from a Non-Governmental Organization. It was like a lifeline in the middle of a storm.

A refugee in Thailand studying at Siam University's library

In just two years, I achieved what usually takes four. My journey to complete IGCSE and A levels was tough and filled with challenges. Throughout this experience, I learned valuable lessons: to never surrender hope, even when it seems there are no opportunities in sight. I believe that where there's a will, there's always a way to overcome problems and find solutions.

This year, my hard work is paying off: I have been admitted to an IT undergraduate program at Siam University in Bangkok. Thanks to the UNHCR-DAFI programme, which supports refugee students to earn undergraduate degrees, I received a full scholarship which will cover my tuition fees for the next four years. Studying at university is something both my parents and I are proud of: I will be the first in my family to earn a degree.

Education has given me confidence, enabling me to live my life with hope for a better future. Although a university degree won't magically solve all the challenges I face, it will undoubtedly provide me with the tools for a brighter future.

Visit the Refugee Voices webpage to discover more inspirational stories.