Students help refugee youth access education in Denmark

A group of university students in Copenhagen has established the initiative “Student Refugees” in order to help and guide young refugees to access higher education in Denmark.

© UNHCR/Max-Michel Kolijn

When 24-year old Ali came to Denmark two years ago as a refugee from Syria, he had no doubt that he wanted to continue studying. But he soon found out that the Danish education system was worlds apart from the one he knew in his home country.

Even though official social workers assured him that it was possible to start studying in Denmark, it was clear that the road ahead would be far from easy.

“This is my dream, but unfortunately I found a lot of challenges and difficulties. I felt stuck, like I couldn’t take the next step,” Ali explains.

But this changed when a friend told him about the network called Student Refugees, a volunteer group of university students who have joined forces to help young refugees access higher education.

They assist refugees in understanding the Danish system, overcoming language barriers and improving their eligibility. They give them advice about opportunities, supplementary courses and the application process. And, equally as important, they provide valuable peer support and motivation.

“We see refugees being guided into the low-skilled, low-paid job market, and I don’t think it’s the best way to integrate them, because then people who studied to be doctors and professors end up driving taxis and cleaning floors,” explains Alba Ortega, who founded the network.

With financial support, received through the Danish Student House and National Union of Students, Student Refugees was officially established in the fall of 2017. After only six months in action, they’ve been in contact with more than 70 young refugees, with backgrounds in economics, chemistry, law, engineering and more. The numbers keep growing as the network regularly hosts open “application-cafés”, where refugees can show up, get help and support, and subsequently be paired with mentors from Student Refugees.

“We wanted to give people a chance to actually continue doing what they’d started in their home countries,” says founder Alba Ortega, who has been invited to share the concept and experiences along with other volunteers at several integration conferences in Europe.

One of the mentors with Student Refugees is Sara, a Danish medical student who joined the network to counter the negative public narratives in Denmark.

“There’s constantly this negative emphasis that refugees are a burden, but I don’t agree, and I wanted to do something to represent my country in another way. This might be only a drop in the ocean, but I welcome refugees and want to help,” she says.

24-year old Ali, who was studying French translation back in Syria before he had to flee with his mother and sister, has now submitted his application to start Human Studies at Roskilde University in the coming fall semester. This was only possible, after—with the advice and support from the volunteers—he succeeded in getting his Syrian university papers and his former education approved by the Danish Ministry of Higher Education.

“Student Refugees gave me hope. They made me feel like, I could do it,” says 24 year old Ali, a Syrian refugee in Denmark. With support and guidance from the volunteer network of Danish students, he has now applied for university in Denmark in order to continue studying. © UNHCR/Max-Michel Kolijn


Now, he just has to wait for the verdict this summer—whether he’ll be accepted or not—like so many  young refugees who have been supported by Student Refugees in submitting applications to Danish universities.

But the support and help from Student Refugees at least gave Ali hope and a boost of self-confidence:

“They helped me have a new vision. I felt comfortable with them, because they know much more than I do about the Danish system. They made me feel like I can do it. That it’s not impossible,” he says.


Update September 2018

Good news! Ali was accepted to Roskilde University.

“I was optimistic, but also so nervous. When I got the letter, that I was accepted, it was almost the best day of my life.”

A few weeks ago, Ali started his studies for the Bachelor Degree in Social International Studies.

“I have made many new friends already, and here we are all just students,” he says. “I am really happy, but I know that it will also be a challenge, because I have been out for school for many years. I need to get back to study mode.”

Unfortunately, not all children and youth who have been forced to flee their homes, are able to return to school. Only 1 per cent of refugee youth have access to tertiary education, and UNHCR recently raised the alarm of the growing gap in refugee education, currently resulting in 4 million refugee children missing school. More information here.