The initiative Student Refugees is providing support and guidance to refugees and asylum-seekers in Iceland to overcome barriers in the education system.
When Sayed Khanoghli fled Afghanistan as a teenager – after having lived through threats, seen dead bodies in the streets and lost several family members – he had never heard about the country in the middle of the North Atlantic Sea. It was the Icelandic volunteers he met during his one year in Greece, that made him consider Iceland as a potential safe new home.
“I come from a small village, where we were very close to nature, so I could relate to what they told me about Iceland. A small community living in the middle of wild nature. It sounded like it could be my second home,” says the now 20-year old Sayed who came to Iceland and was recognized as a refugee in 2018.
With him, he brought memories of fleeing his home country alone, of a strenuous and dangerous journey, and of witnessing tremendous hardship in Greece. With his English skills he was volunteering as an interpreter for a women’s rights organization.
“I heard horrible stories from pregnant women or mothers with newborn-babies, who had so many challenges and mental issues. It was such a terrible situation in Greece, and I’ve been a human rights activist ever since.”
However, Sayed also brought ambitions and dreams. Of going back to school and getting an education, but this was easier said than done. He tried applying for high school in Iceland, but was rejected, as he could not provide his school certificate from Afghanistan. This had been lost as his old school had been burnt down.
The solution for Sayed came with Student Refugees. A student-led volunteer initiative in Iceland, that helps and supports refugees and asylum-seekers who want to pursue their education – and might need a helping hand.
Student Refugees offers guidance and mentoring, they host application cafés, where people can get help with their university applications, and they are providing information on the Icelandic education system in order to help young refugees navigate the rules and admission requirements.
A volunteer helped Sayed write a letter to the high school, explaining the situation, and he was accepted and could resume his education. And when COVID-19 shut down the schools in Iceland, the volunteers also helped Sayed find a tutor who could help him and ensure that he did not fall behind.
Behind the Icelandic initiative is the National Student Union LÍS, whose members were inspired after meeting the Danish branch of Student Refugees. In 2019, the programme was up and running in Iceland – and according to Derek Allen, president of LÍS, it has not been difficult to find supporters and volunteers among the Icelandic students.
“In the Student Union we fight for equal rights for all students, and we know that refugees in Iceland are facing obstacles to get an education. Even if refugees have all the prerequisites, it can be quite difficult to navigate the system,” explains Derek.
“In Iceland, having connections will help you manage, and this is what Student Refugees is all about.”
The initiative receives praise from UNHCR’s Integration Officer in the Nordic and Baltic Countries, Karolis Zibas:
“Access to education is an essential tool to ensure that refugees again become owners of their own future. Student Refugees not only provides young refugees in Iceland with that helping hand they might need; they are also offering them an important social network in their new community.”
During COVID-19, as with so much else, Student Refugees’ activities have been a bit on hold. The network has been connecting via Facebook and emails, but in early Spring, Student Refugees could again start hosting their open application cafés and connect refugees with volunteers.
According to Erla Gudbjorg Hallgrímsdóttir, international officer at LÍS and part of Student Refugees, the initiative has so far supported around 50 asylum-seekers and refugees in Iceland. They are also providing information to others who are reaching out on behalf of refugees who might struggle with lost documents or questions on how the system works.
Currently, they are working to make the programme more sustainable and less dependent on the Student Union who changes its board on a yearly basis, so that the support to young refugees in Iceland is sure to continue year after year.
“You want people to be educated. Then they will be better prepared to participate in society, and they can realize their own potential,” says Erla.
For Afghan refugee Sayed Khanoghli, the plan is to graduate high school in the summer of 2023, and he hopes this will then help him pursue university and build his future in Iceland.
“It’s not easy having left your country for safety reasons, and some people make you feel like you don’t belong, but I’m really trying to become part of society. I’m not completely fluent in Icelandic yet, but I’m getting there, and after my graduation I will have so many opportunities,” says Sayed who is also chairing the youth branch of Amnesty and working part-time to help provide for himself.
“I hope one day I can become a citizen. I really love this country, and I have a lot of friends here.”
Derek Allen, president of National Student Union LÍS talks about the importance of having connections in Iceland. © UNHCR/Elisabeth Haslund
20-year old Sayed who came to Iceland. was recognized as a refugee in 2018. © UNHCR/Elisabeth Haslund
According to Erla Gudbjorg Hallgrímsdóttir, international officer at LÍS and part of Student Refugees, the initiative has so far supported around 50 asylum-seekers and refugees in Iceland. © UNHCR/Elisabeth Haslund