Ibrahim is on course for success, but he is among the global 1% of refugees who manage to access tertiary education.
According to a recent study by UNHCR – Left Behind: Refugee Education in Crisis – young refugees have very limited access to tertiary education. While the number of newly enrolled students in university stands at 36% worldwide, for refugees this number remains at 1%, despite major improvements in the overall number refugees enrolling in university due to scholarships and other programs.
Ibrahim, 19, is a first-year law student at the University of Nicosia, and is among that 1%. With his parents both in stable jobs and having made many friends, mostly Cypriots, he feels that Cyprus is now his home. Born in Bagdad and of Palestinian descent, Ibrahim lives in Cyprus with his parents and is three siblings since 2006 after fleeing from violence and persecution. Ibrahim was seven years old when his father, a well-known and successful lawyer in Bagdad, was threatened due to his origin, his professional activities and his political stance.
The persecution of Palestinians at that time in Iraq, after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime was a daily reality. “My father was targeted by the Shiites twice. During this the same period, they killed my uncle just for being Palestinian,” says Ibrahim, who, despite his young age, remembers the fear that prevailed in his country, especially among the Palestinian community.
Thus the refugee road was the only choice for Ibrahim’s father and his family. Although only seven years old, Ibrahim still remembers how difficult this was. “I had my friends and relatives, and I cried a lot when I we had to leave. But I understood there was no other choice. When my uncle was killed, my parents had to make this difficult decision because they simply couldn’t live with the same risk any longer.”
Today, Ibrahim says – and appears to be – happy. He lives a normal, peaceful life with his siblings and his parents who have, through hard work, to get back on their feet. His father created a car parts company – “a steady job,” as Ibrahim says. His mother works at a bakery, while his three siblings are all in school.
The young law student possesses self-confidence and clear life goals, and dreams big. But to get this far, the road was not easy. “At first, it was all very difficult. Language is a key element for integration,” says Ibrahim. “It took a long time for us to learn the language and to be able to communicate and get to know people and build relationships.”
Ibrahim recalls his first day at elementary school in Larnaca, at age eight, feeling afraid, alone and with no knowledge of the language at all. “I remember my mother, who had given me some pocket money in the morning to buy something from the canteen,” he says, smiling. “By lunchtime I gave her back the money telling her I didn’t need it, and I that would not be going to school again.”
But with the support of his teachers and his parents, who believed in the importance of a good education, and who stood by him every step of the way, Ibrahim soon overcame the obstacles. He quickly learned Greek and was able to make friends. He graduated high school with very good grades and is now studying Cypriot Law at the University of Nicosia, with a 50% scholarship.
“I’m very interested in law, and my aim is to go on to post-graduate and doctoral studies.” We asked him which area of law he would like to specialise in, but as a first-year student, he has not yet decided. “I like criminal law and constitutional law, and I would also like to pursue refugee and migration law, which is offered as an elective – if it is offered next year I will definitely choose it,” he says. “In any case, I am a refugee and I am interested in learning about the legal aspects of this area. I want to see how I can help other refugees.”
At just 19 years old, apart from law, Ibrahim is passionate about politics and is already active in various groups: he is in the student wing of his party, student representative of his department at university, and head of international relations of the student union. “I like dealing with politics, and with the public. I’ve been following the news since I was a child, to stay informed about current affairs in Cyprus and abroad. I also like to shape and stand for my own point of view. When I see injustice, I want to somehow contribute in some way to correct the system,” says Ibrahim. He does not rule out the possibility of being more involved in politics in the future, once he has completed his studies, he tells us, all smiles.
At the age of 19, besides legal, he has a great deal of love for politics and is already active in various forms: a student party, a representative of law students at the University, and a student of international relations at the University. “I like dealing with politics, with the public. I’ve been watching the news for a while since I was a kid to inform what is happening in Cyprus and abroad. I also want to shape and say my point. When I see injustice, I want to contribute somehow to correct the system, “he says, and he does not rule out the possibility of pursuing politics in the future” after finishing my studies first, “he says smiling.
Although exams are over, Ibrahim, who is an active person by his very nature, has no intention of spending the summer idling until the new academic year gets started. “My wish is to find a job that will enable me to start building my professional experience… You cannot build a career without experience nowadays,” he says, filled with optimism.
Ibrahim is on course for success, but his story is not the norm. For refugees arriving in Cyprus at an older age, the path to education is much longer and more painful. Despite their capabilities, young refugees in Cyprus are at a disadvantage in terms of access to university education, as well as technical and vocational training. It is vital for the government and higher education institutions to provide more programs that allow refugees access to universities under the same conditions as citizens. To make this possible, secondary school pupils need more out-of-school support to meet the requirements of higher education.
The UNHCR Office in Cyprus cooperates with the University of Nicosia to support refugees in Cyprus by offering, inter alia, scholarships to young refugees for higher education. We appeal to other tertiary education institutions across Cyprus to offer similar openings to young refugees.