Refugees seeking Sanctuary in college
Four Irish universities are now helping asylum seekers go to third level. Kim Bielenberg talks to students in direct provision
Four Irish universities are now classed as "Universities of Sanctuary" as they introduce specific initiatives to welcome and support asylum seekers and refugees on their courses.
Today is World Refugee Day and, to mark the occasion, the Irish Universities Association is highlighting measures to make higher education more accessible to migrants fleeing war zones and political persecution.
Universities of Sanctuary are an initiative of the City of Sanctuary movement, which began in October 2005 in Sheffield.
The programme encourages colleges to do everything possible to secure equal access to higher education for asylum seekers. The four Irish universities recognised so far are: Dublin City University (DCU); University College Cork (UCC); University of Limerick (UL), and University College Dublin (UCD). Others are following suit and it is also spreading to the institute of technology sector.
Asylum seekers and refugees frequently have their education cut short as they flee their home countries.
Housed in direct provision centres, scattered around the country, their opportunities for higher education are often severely limited.
Having English as a second language and a lack of staff trained to cater to their needs are among the barriers encountered by the newcomers.
Sinead Lucey, Head of International Relations at the Irish Universities Association, says Irish universities are committed to welcoming students from all over the world, especially those fleeing conflict.
"Universities are using innovative options such as virtual learning environments in recognition of the challenges some students face in attending classes on campus."
DCU was designated as Ireland's first University of Sanctuary in 2016.
Measures introduced by DCU include 15 academic scholarships, at either undergraduate or postgraduate level, for asylum seekers or refugees.
To mark World Refugee Day, DCU is announcing a further 30 scholarships, in partnership with the online platform, FutureLearn, to enable refugees and asylum seekers to pursue certificates from a wide range of FutureLearn courses.
DCU student Shepherd Machayah moved to Ireland in 2007 from Zimbabwe, fleeing political persecution and violence under the regime of Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party.
He worked as a salesman in Zimbabwe before violence and threats to his safety forced him to flee.
He has now spent over 10 years living in direct provision in Portlaoise, and has just finished his first year studying management information technology and information systems. He studies remotely through DCU Connected and travels to Dublin for some tutorials.
"Life in direct provision can be very difficult and boring. The building is an old hotel located 12km outside of Portlaoise. A shuttle bus goes into the town four times a day, with the last bus home at 4.15pm. The centre provides us with food - we cannot cook for ourselves.
"Being able to study with DCU Connected through the University of Sanctuary has completely changed me. I am a totally different person now that I wake up every day knowing I have something to do. It has given me purpose."
As well as doing online tutorials, Shepherd travels to Dublin twice a month to attend classes in DCU.
The University of Sanctuary award was officially presented to UL a year ago.
The designation commits the university to a three-year action plan, with a focus on encouraging, promoting and enabling refugees and asylum seekers to access third-level education.
To mark World Refugee Day, UL is expanding its Sanctuary Scholarships scheme to offer specific supports to 30 refugees and asylum seekers, up from 17 last year.
Sikhulekile Ruth Ndlovu came to Ireland in 2015 and lives in Limerick city centre. She is one of UL's inaugural Sanctuary Scholars.
The Zimbabwean asylum seeker says she came to Ireland out of fear of persecution.
"My family was in danger and I had to be out of the country," she said.
Ruth lived in direct provision in Killarney, Co Kerry, until she received a scholarship to study in Limerick.
She says it's not easy being in direct provision: "You just have to keep your head above water; it is also hard to integrate with the Irish community - it's like an open prison.
"I am trying to see the positive side. At least I am getting an education, and I will be able to secure work opportunities."
Ruth has just completed studying for the Mature Student Access Certificate (MSAC), a one-year, full-time pre-degree course designed for mature students. She was delighted to receive four A grades and a B in her certificate.
She plans to continue her studies with a degree in business studies, specialising in accounting and finance.
"I want to do a graduate programme in KPMG and work as an auditor," she said.
Ruth explains that there are certain difficulties faced by students in direct provision.
She says it can be difficult to stay on in the university library in the evening because she misses dinner in her direct provision centre. Residents are not allowed to cook for themselves.
Since she started at UL, she has become involved in Enactus, a charitable organisation that encourages students to create social entrepreneurial projects. Her own project involves asylum seeker and refugee integration.
UL lecturer Dr Máiréad Moriarty, who spearheaded the programme, says that a university education should be a possibility for all. "We have been committed to providing access to our university for people from all backgrounds."