Historic Edinburgh school opens doors to refugee children

A prestigious independent school in Scotland is offering Syrian refugees a chance to learn and progress towards a brighter future.

George Heriot School in Edinburgh.  © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

EDINBURGH, Scotland – In a second-floor apartment not far from Edinburgh’s city centre, five-year-old Jinan al-Ejrf was enjoying the attention. 

“Old McDonald had a farm,” she sang with a faint but unmistakeable Scottish lilt. Around her, her father and four friends joined in: “Ee-eye, ee-eye Oh!”

It would have been an ordinary enough domestic scene – a father showing off his young daughter’s growing abilities – but for the context: Jinan, her parents and her two siblings had all fled their home in Syria. They were granted resettlement in the UK after years as refugees in Lebanon. 

Jinan, 5, from Quneitra, Syria, in her family's new home in Edinburgh.  © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Jinan’s story, one so tragically familiar to the millions of Syrians who have escaped the violence in their country, is about to take a turn for the better, as the five-year-old prepares to begin life in her new homeland with a private education. 

This is thanks to an initiative by the prestigious George Heriot’s School, which is nearly 400 years old. “We just want to do our bit,” explains Cameron Wyllie, the school’s principal.

Once a decision had been taken to offer fully paid bursaries to Syrian refugee children who had come to Edinburgh as part of the UK Government’s Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, the local council proved a willing partner. 

The process of selection, however, was “completely traumatic,” said Wyllie. “I kind of steeled myself a little bit for this. But it was much worse than I thought.”

So much so that, while the school had originally intended to offer only two full bursaries, by the end of the five interviews the school conducted, administrators agreed to offer fully paid places to three children, Wyllie said, and help place the last two, including Jinan, at another independent private school, Clifton Hall School, just outside the city. 

It was the conduct of the families that so impressed the school during the interview process, said Wyllie. 

“The first family we saw, he was a very nice boy, a football player, very smiley, very happy, very polite, just a wee boy,” said Wyllie. “But his mother… it was the kind of stoicism that she was demonstrating.”

The boy was Mohammad Murad, 12, who had come with his mother, Hana, for the interview. The Murads, a Kurdish family from Hassakeh in north-east Syria, were living in Damascus when the fighting erupted in 2011. After first moving back to Hassakeh to be with Mohammad’s grandmother, the Murads eventually fled to Domiz camp in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2013. 

They spent nearly three years there, until UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, was able to facilitate their relocation to the UK. Mohammad’s 10-year-old sister, Aisha, suffers an ailment that has affected her eyesight. The family came to Edinburgh in April this year, and are waiting for a series of medical tests for Aisha. 

Mohammad's family resettled to Edinburgh in April 2016. Mohammad says"I miss Damascus, but I look forward to school. I want to be a doctor. I want to help people".  © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Camp life was hard. For the first two months the family lived in a tent, but when a fire came uncomfortably close, they raised some brick walls and put up a nylon roof. There was little work for the trained electrician and little money. 

But Mohammad remembers the camp, home to over 40,000 refugees, fondly. He remembers attending school, and says, “I made a lot of friends.”

Nevertheless, it was a disrupted life and a disrupted education, something Hana, 36, tried to explain to George Heriot’s principal during their interview at the school.

It would have been “perfectly reasonable,” said Wyllie, for any of the parents attending the interviews at George Heriot’s to turn around and say, “look, these children have had an absolutely horrific time for years,” and implore the school for an opportunity.

But none did. “Never was there any raw display of emotion. It was all so dignified,” said Wyllie.

The three bursaries for Syrian refugees mark the first time since World War One that the school has offered places specifically to refugees. The bursary is named after Dimitry Dulkanovic, one of the 27 young Serbian boys taken in by George Heriot’s in 1916 after fleeing violence at home. According to school lore, the last request of Dimitry Dulkanovic, who died in 1995, was to be buried in his school tie. 

With the memory of that Serbian experience, Wyllie hopes the bursaries for refugees can be repeated in the future. Helping refugee children fits in well with a school that prides itself on a historic mission to support some of Edinburgh’s most disadvantaged children and provide them with a brighter future.