Giving back: Iraqi refugee helps others navigate school system in Hungary

Tuesday 17, April 2012 BUDAPEST, April 17 (UNHCR) – “Iraqi families do not come to Europe to picnic” said Iraqi refugee and father of two Abdulrahman Hassan.  “They need a safe place to live and to ensure a future for their children.”    The 48-year-old Hassan believes that future is […]

Tuesday 17, April 2012

BUDAPEST, April 17 (UNHCR) – “Iraqi families do not come to Europe to picnic” said Iraqi refugee and father of two Abdulrahman Hassan.  “They need a safe place to live and to ensure a future for their children.”   

The 48-year-old Hassan believes that future is in education and his main goal is for his children to finish school and find decent work in their new country. The Iraqi family of four fled their Bagdad home in 2007 after their Syrian Catholic church was bombed twice by extremists.

Back at home, Hassan – who has degrees in agro-economy and theology – ran his own business. But in his new country, like many refugees before him, he faced many obstacles finding a job without knowing the language, the culture and the local procedures.   The Iraqi father now works full-time in a tiny but popular kebab-buffet in a busy street of Budapest.  After work, for almost a year he helped newly arrived refugee families navigate the schooling system in Budapest as part of a programme run by a local NGO.

“I know what refugee families and their children go through and I felt I could help them deal with it,” said Hassan who joined the School Integration Programme of the Refugee Mission of the Hungarian Reformed Church as a part-time social worker two years ago. He helped out with translation and giving the Arabic-speaking students and their families advice on the Hungarian culture and education system.

For Hassan it was about giving back to the programme that helped his children find their feet in a new land and bridge the gap between the Iraqi and Hungarian education systems.  His then 13-year-old daughter Rita and 9-year-old son Moheb joined the programme in 2008, shortly after they were granted refugee status.

The programme helped the parents choose a school and the children to catch up with the Hungarian language and other subjects. It also provided Rita and Moheb a monthly transport pass, school meals and community and cultural orientation.   “Without the programme, I think my children would not have the chance for a good education and a decent job later and they might very well have to return to Iraq that is not safe for them,” Hassan told UNHCR.

The School Integration Programme was launched in 2006, helping young refugees and their families in half a dozen schools in Budapest including Benkő István Reformed Primary and High School where Hassan’s children study.  The programme gives books and school equipment, medical aid and a dormitory place if needed.  Social workers also help families solve problems, sort out paperwork, integrate into the school community and prepare for adult life in Hungary.

“Schools often refuse to admit refugee students, claiming that they are already overloaded”, said Dóra Kanizsai-Nagy, Head of the Refugee Mission.  “It proves to be much easier to convince the school to enroll a young refugee if the school management sees that there is an entire programme behind the future student,” added Kanizsai-Nagy who also works to sensitize teachers at participating schools to intercultural issues in a country with little experience in intercultural education.

The Refugee Mission’s programme supports 35 to 40 refugee students a year and is largely run with support by the European Refugee Fund (ERF).  Last year, it was not funded and the NGO had to quickly scramble to mobilize resources.

“It is not possible to tell a child that we cannot study with him or her any longer.  Refugee children in particular need stability and a long-term support, ideally from enrollment to graduation,” said Kanizsai-Nagy.

While EU funds have been secured again in 2012 both Kanizsai-Nagy and Hassan agree that more predictable and stable funding is critical for the programme. More teachers are needed to help more refugee students and for longer.

Rita is now 17-years-old and preparing for her final exam next year.  “Unfortunately there is not enough time and opportunity when she could sit down with the teacher, so I will need to look for a solution,” said Hassan.

UNHCR has hailed the programme as a good model in its annual Being a refugee report and believes sustainable funding is needed.  “Projects that are crucial for refugees’ integration should not be forced to run on project-basis due to varying funding; this just works against sustainability,” said UNHCR’s Integration Associate Zsuzsanna Puskás.

Meanwhile, Hassan one of eight sibilings, dreams of seeing his brothers and sisters again – some of whom have found relative safety in the north of Iraq.

„I only hope that my children will have a good future here and that one day the family will be able to reunite,” he said looking into the distance.

Eva Hegedus in Budapest, Hungary