Skip to main content

Can a University of Sanctuary create Sanctuary?

Larysa Agbaso, a Sanctuary graduate of MA TESOL from Cardiff Metropolitan University, shares a heartfelt piece about the positive impact the Sanctuary scholarship has had on her life, and highlights the support that shaped her positive experience.

Reflection on personal experience of finding a light in the darkness.

If a university were a person, I would describe Cardiff Metropolitan University as humble, compassionate, caring, and wise. This was my first impression that further strengthened over time. Taking a postgraduate degree course in the university brought out a miraculous/dramatic transformation into my life. Although my life circumstances (financial, legal, family) remain unfavourable and adverse, my life perception has changed – I learnt how to live with trauma rather than exist under its total control. Reflecting on my first-hand experience, I kept asking the following questions:

  • Can a university become a sanctuary for someone who has been displaced?
  • How did the university manage to transform my life?

Acknowledging that my experience might not be shared by all the displaced students due to the existence of various factors and circumstances, I briefly introduce my story and then offer a blend of my reflections about what worked well and our conversations with Natalie Buckland, the Head of Global Student Advisory Service, about what happened ‘behind the scenes’ to make this possible. This can provide admission teams and other departments working with the displaced students with key information which could help improve the services. This might also be of interest to those who aspire to go into higher education in the UK.

Before relocating to the UK, I worked as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language. In 2014, the war conflict in my home country forced my family to flee in search of safety. However, more challenges were ahead – going through a personal traumatic experience, loss of home, identity, and self. A new label ‘asylum seeker’ and continued injustice further aggravated the situation making the recovery from trauma almost impossible. At that time, it was not me and I did not want to be me. Some therapy sessions and volunteering as an ESOL tutor were helpful. However, the negative impact of life events had been much stronger making this help quite inefficient. I felt helpless and frightened. The restoration of self-worth and control over my life could have helped me find meaning and hope in life again. At the meeting with a career advisor, I was strongly advised to complete a postgraduate course (TESOL) to be able to use my teaching experience and get a job in the future. Age, ill mental health that affected the ability to cope even with daily routine, the lack of basic understanding of how to navigate this educational path, all these factors became the major barriers to returning to education, with financial and immigration factors being the strongest.  

In regard to access to higher education in the UK, asylum seekers are less fortunate among all forcibly displaced people. Unlike people with refugee status, humanitarian protection or indefinite leave to remain, asylum seekers and people with limited and discretionary leave to remain are ineligible to access student finance and required to pay fees as overseas students. Moreover, asylum seekers are obliged to reside in the accommodation which is provided by the Home Office on the ‘no choice’ basis which limits educational opportunities for them. Often unexpected changes in immigration status (for example, refusal of an asylum application or imposition of study restrictions) contribute to the complexity of the issue.

Acknowledging that not everyone has the privilege to live in their home countries, Cardiff Metropolitan University does a lot of work related to people who were forced to leave their homes. In 2018, Cardiff Metropolitan University became the first Welsh university to receive a University of Sanctuary Award.  The university actively cooperates with local community organisations such as The Welsh Refugee Council, Oasis and Displaced People in Action. The annual celebration of cultural diversity during Global Week and creation of a network through hosting The Sanctuary Games that engage refugees and asylum seekers have contributed to raising awareness of challenges the sanctuary seekers face and promoting the practice of welcome and inclusion. To reduce the impact of the language barrier, disruption in education or career the displaced people might face, the university runs a wide range of ‘taster’ courses and delivers IELTS in the community via the Widening Access programme. In 2017, the university launched the Cardiff Metropolitan Sanctuary Award Scholarship to provide an access to Higher Education to asylum seekers and refugees. In 2018 – 2019, this Sanctuary Award Scholarship became ‘a magic wand’ that helped me reconnect with myself. 

  • Taster sessions

Cardiff Metropolitan Widening Access Team works with local communities including refugees and asylum seekers ensuring that people of any age and background can access HE if they wish so. Various accredited and non-accredited courses, summer school and courses in partnership with First Campus raise awareness of progression opportunities and raise aspirations to continue education. To make it more feasible for our summer school group, the university assisted with transport.

Attending the taster sessions/short courses in the university was inspiring and eye-opening. To start with, the educational context outside the UK can be very different, like in the case of my home country, where a person joining a college or a university with a younger age group might experience a high degree of discomfort. I must confess I was pleasantly surprised to have met many learners far above 18 years of age, with different life stories and like me considering going back to education. Finding myself among the people where the immigration status lost its meaning gave me the feeling I longed for. The university building itself had the power to motivate and make you want to come back. 

Each summer school course contained a short presentation on the system of higher education in the UK and possible pathways of the progression into the university. These sessions help ‘feel’ the chosen course of study before making a decision of a lifetime. Both reflective and academic writing courses helped me identify my strengths (At that time, I did not know they existed at all) and weaknesses and equipped me with the knowledge I needed later while doing my degree. 

  • Application process

Every year, the Sanctuary Award is announced during Global Week at the beginning of March. With a deadline being at the beginning of July, this gives enough time to gather the necessary documentation and apply for both, a course, and a scholarship. This is helpful because of several reasons. Informal discussions with other sanctuary seekers show that the admission process in other countries can differ and start at the end of the academic year. Moreover, it gives much needed time to those completing their course of study in college or doing A levels as they need to apply for a degree course and a scholarship. Most importantly, for those with uncertain immigration status, it reduces the time gap between the application deadline and outcome. Having a positive result earlier in a year might lead to a constant worry about an asylum application refusal as it can affect the right to study.

Successful candidates expect to be contacted during the first week of September. This is done in a way that the application assessment panel can meet any time in July taking into account that it can be holiday time for some panel members and the number of applications is unknown. However, I was notified earlier than expected which helped me to skip additional worries. It also showed me a respectful attitude and the importance of scholarship applications for the university. 

A negative outcome can be upsetting in any context. However, applicants from refugee and asylum-seeking background can have greater sensitivity due to their life experiences. To be more supportive, the university aims to make the process as transparent as possible. When contacting unsuccessful applicants, the scholarship team tries to ensure the response is written in a compassionate way providing meaningful feedback that highlights the positive sides of applications and suggests what can be improved to provide more information. This can give unsuccessful candidates a more positive and worthy image of themselves. 

The Sanctuary Award application form is quite accessible. It provides information on what the scholarship includes, eligibility criteria, guidance on the application process and advises on the contact if clarification required. Importantly, this contact is competent enough to deal with various issues (immigration status, credentials, DBS check, etc) which eases the navigation of the university admission process. The questions are clear and provide applicants with various options. For example, the question about immigration status has eight options that allow applicants to choose the relevant answers and gives the admission team an overview of applicants’ rights and entitlement. For applicants not familiar with the British educational system, writing a personal statement can be a quite confusing process. The guiding questions (Why did you choose this course? What are your ambitions for the future? How would this course help you to achieve your ambitions?) help the applicants structure their writing in a better way. The questions about interruptions to education and/or career, experiences since arriving in the UK allow the applicants to add more information about themselves. The clearer the application is the less upsetting expectation can be for an applicant.

The scholarship information is promoted with the support of widening access team, social media and the third sector organisation working with forced migrants. However, for some of these organisations and further education colleges, higher education is often not a primary aim, especially for older persons. Thus, having some workshops with charities to educate at least one representative and having more communication between the sectors would raise more awareness and ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are sufficiently informed about available opportunities and how to apply for them. 

  • Welcome

After receiving positive news about my scholarship and completing some formalities, I was invited to the introductory meeting with Paul Fitzpatrick, the university chaplain at the time, and Natalie Buckland, the Head of Global Student Advisory Service. During my time in the university, they both were the people I could contact if I needed any assistance. This meeting became a strong foundation for the beginning of my recovery. Congratulations, words of support and inspiration helped dig out the small remaining bit of hope that hid somewhere deep. Even now, I remember how frightened I was at that time, how afraid I was to speak and how foggy and surreal was everything happening to me. Knowing Natalie and Paul personally made me feel welcomed and special. In that meeting, we spoke about many things related to my studies, academic expectations, support, and timetable. Natalie showed me the campus and the places I might have needed primarily, School of Education, classrooms, Student Union, Academic Advice, library, and canteen. I was introduced to some members of staff as a scholarship recipient, not an asylum seeker, and I vividly remember the warm welcome and smiles on that day. This meeting has definitely reduced my fear and made the transition into the university smoother.

  • Enrolment day

The day of enrolment for a new student can be exciting. However, for asylum seekers and refugees, it might not be always the case. As a result of facing the complexity of the legal system, an event such as enrolment day can raise anxiety about what will happen, with expectations of questions about the immigration status and your circumstances if the person you are talking to misunderstands due to the different identification documents presented for example. For a person, who experienced a hostile environment this event can be triggering and leading to re-experiencing shame, otherness, or fear. Due to continued injustice and despite the reassurance I received during the initial meeting, I continued to struggle and had a severe panic attack prior to the enrolment day. This can happen to people who previously experienced traumatic events. 

The personal greeting by Natalie and guidance on what to do became a manifestation of respect and compassion. The admission team collaboratively worked on my documents, confirmed my immigration status, completed my right-to-study check in advance, and to my surprise, I did not need to say even once that I was an asylum seeker. There was no confusion or embarrassment, possibly for the first time in some years. This day will remain in my memory forever as a day when I was finally treated as a human rather than as an asylum seeker.

The smoothness of this process benefits from the university structure and size. Having a one-stop-shop structure for the department that works with international students allows the scholarship team to work closely and communicate internally about admission, immigration compliance and welfare of the students involved. This reduces the possibility of applicants having negative experiences during their time in the university, including the enrolment process.   

  • A named contact

Transition to university can pose challenges for any student, home or international. In addition to ‘typical’ challenges such as academic requirements, new academic culture, social adjustment and workload, students from the displaced background can face immigration-related problems, mental health issues or obstacles created by the need to care for family members. This can affect students’ lives and have a significant impact on engagement with education. Moreover, a relatively low number of displaced students attend British universities, especially asylum seekers, therefore there may be limited expertise in working with forced migrants, that can make communicating and resolving even basic issues slower, with additional stress for both sides. 

Emerged from the work with international students, the idea of having a named contact has blossomed out into an impressive achievement. Scholarship recipients always can have a person they can contact or speak to if they need. This does not require students re-telling their stories or feel as if they want to get some sympathy. This person is aware of their situation and needs and practical problems of the displaced students in general. This person provides personal support if there is a problem, for example, absence due to court appointments, issues with affording something or unexpected circumstances affecting assignment submission. This support enables students to identify and overcome barriers to achievement in their degree programme.

For me, the relationships built with the named contacts, Natalie Buckland and Paul Fitzpatrick, became therapeutic. It all started at the initial meeting and continued with regular meetings/ check-ins/ email exchange with Natalie and occasional but deep conversations with Paul. They both contributed enormously towards setting up new goals in life, overcoming my difficulty with dreaming and finding meaning and purpose in life, and feeling more positive about myself. Although I tried to be an autonomous learner and find the answers myself, from peers, tutors, academic service or university website, I had that feeling of security and support. I did not have to go through the stress of explaining things, for example, about reporting in the Home Office, or dealing directly with different departments when I received a ban to study. I could ask for help and I could share my achievements too. Being listened to and heard, being treated as a positive and worthy person helped me rediscover trust, security and safety. The value of these nurturing relationships is in their continuity and reciprocity. The strength of the relationships built is enormous – I always wish and find a reason to be in touch with Natalie and Paul, even though Paul is retired now.

  • Ban to study

Six months after the course started, the Home Office imposed the bail conditions restricting my right to study without any explanations. A breach of this condition could result in criminal proceedings and six months in prison. It had a tremendous impact on me. Being deeply upset by the situation in my home country, the hostility of the immigration system, facing another injustice was unbearable. At this point, every single event/ detail played a huge role. Although the nature of the meeting about the ban to study was heart-breaking, the genuine care provided by Natalie on that day was utmost. It was so vital that I did not leave that meeting empty-handed. I had been handed the letter of support to send to the Home Office. This letter represented a little piece of hope that I took away from that meeting. I kept receiving several emails a day from Natalie, with updates and just to find out how I was. At that time, it was so important to know that I mattered. This was priceless – previously I experienced so much injustice.

I felt genuine care in every detail. For instance, I was notified in advance that I would receive a quite negative email from the immigration compliance team. Although it was still hard to receive it later, it was expected so it was less heart-breaking. The language used in the email mattered a lot to me. I remember re-reading it so many times and clearly seeing the message, ‘We want you back. We need you at the university. But there is the law and we all have to abide by it. We hope to welcome you back soon’. Luckily, hard work was rewarding and after some weeks I resumed my studies. A strong sense of solidarity and support has been crucial and much needed not to give up.

  • Financial support

The scholarship includes a full fee waiver, assistance toward local travel to Cardiff Met campus and a lunch allowance during term time. University café is a well-known place where socialising takes place. Sharing a meal brings people together, make connections and creating social bonds. As such, a lunch allowance not only provided me with the joy of delicious food but in a way it reduced the distance between me and my course mates. I did not need to deal with the shame of my situation and the forced poverty until I wished to articulate my life experience. The lunch allowance also created a supportive environment for me as a mother by adding a bit of comfort when I had to leave early morning. The annual bus pass provided me with the freedom of movement as I was able to travel to campus as many times as I needed. 

It may appear disappointing that this support maybe not enough to cover the cost of accommodation or travel to further areas but the university is located in the Home Office dispersal area therefore there is an educational need in the area. Importantly, this type of support does not create additional issues with the NASS support provided by the Home Office and does not differentiate between refugees and asylum seekers.

  • After study

Graduation is probably one of the exciting milestones when studying at a university. However, leaving the university is not easy when the university becomes your home. For some displaced students, the opportunity to keep in touch is quite important. I feel privileged to have been invited to join the university sanctuary working group.  With sanctuary champions from Widening Access, schools, Student Services, International Office and Chaplaincy, we discuss activities and events to support the displaced students, raise awareness of issues the displaced people have and promote the practice of welcome and inclusion. I feel proud to promote the Sanctuary Award scholarship, to take part in Global week and encourage my ESOL students to participate and to continue their education. For me, reconnecting with the university is like visiting home.

  • Bonus: a secret behind scholarship success

Every time I was going to the university and every time I was reflecting on my experience, I wondered what made it so special. The secret behind this is the empathy of the people who work with students with unusual circumstances. When work with sanctuary seekers was relatively new, the university intended to create a particular team of naturally empathetic people, including chaplaincy. Initially, they have received training on the potential background of asylum seekers and refugees and heard. personal stories, allowing people to understand and sympathise. The university aims to get rid of all the barriers as much as possible so everybody can feel comfortable.

Empathy and support are important within the team too. Oversharing of traumatic stories can affect the well-being of the person working directly with the displaced students. Having a confidential chat or debrief within the inner team to ensure that the right thing was said and/or done and to receive support from colleagues can help reduce tension, worries and create a more positive and supportive environment. 

There is a difference between a house and a home. There is a similar difference between having a status of the University of Sanctuary and being a University of Sanctuary. There is no single recipe for creating this sanctuary. Although receiving a scholarship is of huge value for a displaced applicant, yet it is not only about the content of the scholarship but the experience the person gets while studying. The meaningful connections with people, genuine care, reciprocity, compassion and drawing on understanding the complexity of trauma can be a strong base for the provision of the right support. 

It's only fair to share...Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on print

One Response to “Can a University of Sanctuary create Sanctuary?”

  1. Dr Paul Fitzpatrick

    The single most positive article I have read this year; well done Larysa!