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Sunday 24 March 2019

Teen who taught herself English, translated school books and received star results criticises 'restrictive' asylum-seeker education scheme

'Without education, we can’t achieve our dreams' - Juliana (18) is hoping to study law

Juliana is being supported by the Irish Refugee Council's Education Fund to study Law and Criminology
Juliana is being supported by the Irish Refugee Council's Education Fund to study Law and Criminology

Olivia McGill

A young woman who taught herself English and translated two year's worth of exam books has criticised the Government's "restrictive" education scheme for asylum seekers.

Juliana (18) moved to Ireland from Albania with her mum, dad and brother when she was 14-years-old.

She is eager to study law. However, it is necessary to be in the education system for five years to avail of the Department of Education's student support scheme, intended to facilitate young people in Direct Provision to move on to third level education.

Furthermore, due to the restrictive nature of the eligibility criteria, only five people have been granted support from a total of 59 applications since the scheme began in 2015.

Juliana is currently being supported by the Irish Refugee Council's Education Fund to study Law and Criminology but due to a shortage of funds, they can only finance courses on a year by year basis.

"I've always wanted to be a solicitor," said Juliana. "After this course I would need to study for three more years to get a degree. If I want to be solicitor, it's two more years after that."

Juliana had a "happy life" in Albania before things drastically changed for her fanily. Her dad owned a successful business but when the government changed, according to Juliana he fell out of favour and his business was forced to close.

"I was very happy," said Juliana. "I used to be a very good student. In Ireland I didn’t have any English at all. I couldn’t understand anyone. I had depression for a year and a half. I went to a psychologist every week. I wanted to leave school, I didn’t want to live anymore.

"I wanted to be closed in my room and cry. It was so hard to start my life from the beginning. My family and the social worker and psychologist helped me a lot to try my best. I didn’t want to do an English course. In the end, I got a dictionary and used the phone to learn English."

Juliana lives in Mosney, one of the largest refugee centres in Europe.

She walks 30 minutes to get the bus to Drogheda and another 25 minutes from Drogheda to get to her college. She taught herself English, translated two year's worth of Junior Cert text books herself at home and got full distinctions in her Leaving Certificate Applied, but she said it's still not enough.

"I used to translate all the work from English to my language and back again," said Juliana.

"It was a very hard experience but I got used to it. Going back to school helped me out of my depression. I think I would be still feeling so depressed if I didn’t go back to school."

For Juliana, education is the most important thing in life.

"Without it we can’t achieve what we have dreamed.

"The thing I don’t like is if I don’t have residence, I can’t go to college. It's sad for students who would like to have a career. Permission to study is more important than permission to work.

"Work is very important for our parents and mature students but for young people, education is the most important thing.

"There is nothing I can do if I don’t get it [funding] next year. Just stay at home all the time. There is no other option at all. I hope the government will change the rules and we will be the same as all the other students."

Just five people have been granted support since the government scheme started in 2015.

As well as this, delays in launching it for 2018/19 means that no students at all were able to accept a course, even if they did fulfill the stringent criteria to get the grant.

The Irish Refugee Council told they don't have enough money to support all who need it and they don't believe the scheme is set up to have an actual impact.

"The first, second and third rounds of CAO offers have come out.

"Courses are full now. If the scheme had been launched in June and July, the grant could have been approved and students could confidently have accepted courses offered. 

It’s too late for this year. The horse has bolted now," said Charlotte Byrne, Education Officer with the IRC.

"It’s silly. It gets a headline in the newspaper that the government has this grant scheme but one or two people get it a year, it’s not doing what it should."

And while this is a problem in itself, it's not the biggest one, according to the IRC.

"The bigger problem we have with it is that it’s so restrictive," continued Ms Byrne.

"Students have to be here for five years. That’s not too bad but they have to have been in secondary school for five years.

"Most people coming to Ireland are teenagers. There are 30-40 asylum seekers sitting their Leaving Certificate every year.

"Some trained and worked in their own country and now they are sitting around doing nothing, developing all sorts of mental health issues. We see ourselves as a bridge between that and a degree or work. This year we are funding 50 people but for every one I say yes to I’m saying no to two.

"And we can only commit to a year at a time.

"The bigger problem is the fact there are no entry routes other than Leaving Certificate. If someone comes here and does a level 5 or 6 Further Education and Training Awards Council (FETAC) qualification, they could get 11 distinctions and they will never get the grant. It's absolutely disgraceful."

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