Working with refugees - Personal Journeys

Working with refugees - Personal Journeys

To mark Refugee Week, we highlight the work that Cambridge Assessment employees have been doing with refugees, to help to raise awareness and celebrate the contribution of refugees to society.

Zakariya Absi

We’ve invited Zak Absi, a lecturer from the University of Essex, to talk about his life and how he personally helped Cambridge Assessment with our Access to Education initiative.

Working with refugees Zak Absi portrait

I am Zakariya Absi, a language teacher and English for Academic Purposes lecturer at the University of Essex. I came to the UK in 2008 to pursue my postgraduate studies in the Department of Language and Linguistics at the University of Essex.

In 2014, I obtained my PhD in English Language Teaching. I have been teaching in the Department of Language and Linguistics and the Essex Pathways Department at the University of Essex since 2010. I have also recently been involved with refugee support programmes in the UK generally and in the local area.

In 2017, I was privileged to take part in the Techfugee’s Conference at the Cambridge Assessment English headquarters in Cambridge after a friend of mine forwarded to me the conference invitation. In that conference, I listened to empowering talks and live witnesses from the refugee camps in the north of Iraq and I decided to be part of the conference efforts to draw on the conference recommendations and establish an online MOOC (Massive open online courses) platform to support asylum seekers who would like to know what it is like to pursue a higher education degree in a UK university.

The online MOOC course was called "Aim Higher: Access to Higher Education for Refugees and Asylum seekers". In that course, I was asked to take part in assessing the content of the course and mentoring the students' participation. I was also interviewed by Cambridge English and the interviews formed part of the content of the course.

The course was attended by more than a thousand students from many different countries worldwide and was reopened again after a few months. My involvement in this project has had a huge impact on shaping my view of what it means to pursue higher education in war-torn parts of the world.

Additionally, and most importantly, the project has helped me learn that the existence of educators and academics who care, combined with the full utilisation of new technology, can at least create a glimpse of hope in the eyes of those governed by dark and extenuating circumstances.

Inspired by the Cambridge MOOC initiative, I decided to take part in another project in 2016-17, where I had a closer involvement with Syrian refugees in Turkey.

The project was the outcome of collaborative work between BALEAP and the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) and it aimed to reach some of the Syrian academics displaced in Turkey and give them the English language support they needed in order to enhance their employment opportunities and empower them to be international in their academic scope.

This experience was very impressive for me and I was extremely passionate about it as I had to teach English lessons online to a Syrian lecturer who, like many others, had to witness the Syrian tragedy and be a victim of it. I gave that lecturer a one-hour lesson every week, which he highly appreciated and enjoyed.

The funny thing about this experience is that the academic never knew that I was Syrian myself and I was very keen not to say any word in Arabic to him so that he could practise his English as much as possible. Every time I met him online, I wanted to tell him that we were both countrymen, but I always managed to suppress my desire to tell him just so that he could speak in English without having the temptation to translate. 

At the moment, I am participating in the Refugee Week in the local area and I will be giving a talk about the humanitarian side of the Syrian tragedy. There are two messages I would like to reiterate in that talk. The first is for the refugees themselves and the second is to those who can and want to help others who are less unfortunate. 

My message to the refugees is, language is a peaceful weapon to defeat your extenuating circumstances in the host counties. I am sorry to use the word 'weapon' as this is perhaps the last word you want to hear, but learning other languages, especially English, is indeed a weapon to defend yourselves in a thorny journey.

For those who managed to arrive in Europe, being able to swim did help you to cross the high waves of the sea, but I am sure that as soon as you arrived at the safe shore, you realised that learning the language was paramount for survival. 

As for academics who care, my message is, no matter what degree or specialisation you have, unless you possess the human plus dimension of the profession, your profession is bound to be a mere business that fluctuates with the value of currencies and change of daily trends.

An educator has an ethical and moral responsibility before anything else, and unless you care about others who have less fortunate circumstances, and believe in their right to have access to higher education, you are contributing to a world that is only for the elite. Please also remember that by trying to reach refugees and support them linguistically and professionally, you will be building long-term and long-goal communication bridges for which our world is in dire need.

Monica Poulter

Monica Poulter

Monica Poulter, Teacher Development Manager at Cambridge Assessment English, provides an insight into the work that Cambridge English has been doing to help refugees and asylum seekers access education.  

My name is Monica Poulter and I have been involved in providing support for forced migrants both in my official teacher development role at Cambridge English and also as a volunteer in my own time.  

Cambridge English identified a need for volunteers to be able to access information and support. It was important that this support should be easily accessible and free so we developed an online course on the FutureLearn platform. We co-developed the course, Volunteering with Refugees with Crisis Classroom, a CIC (Community Interest Company) that offers training to volunteers on a not-for-profit basis.

We anticipated that participants would include teachers who wanted to know more about how to give language support and others who wanted to be able to support or befriend refugees in non-teaching or less formal roles. Supporting refugees who may have suffered trauma is a key part of the course. 

So far we have run two courses with over 8,000 registrations, and participants have included paid professionals working with refugees and refugee support groups, and the volunteers themselves including teachers, medical professionals, therapists, social workers, musicians or people who simply want to be good neighbours.

Course participants included people who have travelled to support refugees living in camps or temporary accommodation; others are helping refugees to settle in a new country. Many of this latter group are providing one to one support to individuals or families and this is the context where I volunteer.

I’ve been involved in refugee support for 18-months and during that time I have met the most amazing people – both face-to-face and online – all sharing a common goal which is to make a difference in whatever way they can.

The FutureLearn platform allows for social interaction and the sharing of information, resources and experiences has been inspiring. I would say that 50% of the learning is gained through the course content provided by Cambridge English and Crisis Classroom, and the other 50% by the course participants themselves, who included participants from across the globe.

On a personal level as a language teaching specialist, I wanted to help refugees develop their English language skills because language is crucial for building a new life in a new country and for social integration.

However, my involvement in one-to-one support has made me aware of the many difficulties faced by families who are having to deal with a whole range of issues, of which language learning is only one. It’s important that volunteers work within a wider network so that they in turn feel supported, and thankfully in my context in Cambridge there are very active and committed local groups.

The message I would like to give people in World Refugee Week is do what you can even if you can only help in a small way. (It might just be by being neighbourly, picking children from school, explaining the contents of an official letter, donating things you don’t need such as toys your children have outgrown, or an old mobile.) Find out what’s going on in your area and get involved!

Jenny Hayes

Jenny Hayes from Book Aid International discusses how books can be life changing – especially for refugees. 

At Book Aid International, we have been working since 1954 to create a world where everyone has access to books. Books allow people to change their lives for the better, helping students succeed in education, providing access to life-changing information and enriching lives through the joy of reading. Yet around the world millions of people cannot afford the books they need and even libraries often have only a few old books.

Every year, we send around one million brand new books to thousands of public and community libraries, universities, prisons, hospitals and refugee camps where they are used by an estimated 30 million readers. All of the books we send are donated by UK publishers and they can be life changing - especially for refugees.

“I have read about women who have succeeded. I believe I can succeed too.”

Over 42,000 people live in Kenya’s two largest refugee camps, Kakuma and Dadaab. They were established in the 90s when families fled violence in Somalia and Rwanda. Today, many from these countries still live in the camp and they have been joined by thousands fleeing violence in South Sudan. The camps are hugely over-crowded and many people live their entire lives there. 

We have provided thousands of books ranging from dictionaries to inspiring biographies to curriculum support books for Kakuma’s community library and secondary schoolRefugee Yvonne with books libraries in both camps for many years. 

Education can offer young people the chance to earn a university scholarship – one of few ways out of the camps. The books we send are vital for young people to take advantage of this opportunity, as 22 year old Yvonne (right) explains: 

“I have read about women who have succeeded. I believe I can succeed too. My dream is to go out of the camp – so I can no longer be called a refugee. I am going to achieve through books. In my secondary school I was performing well because I was reading story books. I applied for a scholarship and I am praying to get it.”

“Because I can read, now I have a brighter future.”

Yvonne was born in a refugee camp after her family fled the genocide in Burundi in the 1990s, but for many, displacement is far more recent. Since 2011, 5.5 million Syrians have been displaced, including many children who have been forced to leave school. 

Syrian refugee children enjoy a reading activity in LebanonIn Lebanon (left) we are supplying books to a local NGO (Non-government organisation) which provides education for out-of-school Syrian refugees and helps them transition into the Lebanese school system. The books both support their education and help them cope with the challenges they face, as one nine-year-old refugee explained: 

“I like it when the teacher takes us to the library to read. I forget about the war and that I live in a tent.”

How you can help

Lebanon and Kenya are just two of the countries where we are supporting refugees. We also provide books to Greece, where NGOs use them to stock informal libraries in transit camps and in Iraq to support internally displaced people.  We are always looking for new opportunities to support refugees.

We receive no government funding and rely entirely on donations from individuals, trusts and companies so that we can keep providing books for refugees and people around the world. If you would like to help us send the next book, there are a variety of ways you can get involved:

  • Make a donation
  • Hold a fundraiser
  • Become a Publisher Ambassador 

All of the books we send are brand new and donated by UK publishers and we always need more books in the following categories:

  • Children’s and primary fiction and non-fiction
  • Secondary fiction and non-fiction
  • Higher education and development
  • English Language skills
  • Law
  • Medicine and healthcare
  • Reference
  • Professional, vocational and technical.

If you would like to donate books or discuss how you can partner with us further, please contact our Head of Operations, Simon Mercer

The next Volunteering with Refugees course will run online starting on the 25 June 2018. If you are interested in finding out more about the work Cambridge English has been doing to help refugees access education, then read our blog

Rassina Asaad

Rassina Asaad, a Syrian Refugee, takes us on her personal journey of coming to the UK and gaining a place at University. This heartfelt blog inspires hope in young people in similar situations who should never give up hope.

My name is Rassina Asaad. I am student in the UK and I originally come from Syria. I have been living in the UK for two years and currently I am living in Manchester. Due to the circumstances of my country I came to the UK to have the opportunity to live and to study.

Firstly, starting life again from scratch is never easy but I have been surrounded by such amazing people who have supported and motivated me. Secondly, I found it a bit confusing at first to go in the right direction but then I have met students’ services in the college and they guided me. Rassina Asaad with Manchester College Tutor

My first step was to compare my qualifications with UK NARIC, then I got stated applying to universities. So, I sent lots of emails and checked every step. In my opinion, the steps are very clear.  It is like a cliché and it is very smooth way and very understandable to find your own way. 

However, the difference between my country and the UK to access the high education is that in my country the course chooses you depends on your grades while in the UK, you choose the course because you are interesting in it. In fact, that what I like it in the UK. 

The importance of English language is the same as the colours are required to fill a painting. Without colours the painting also exists but a colourful world is always better than a colourless universe. In addition, the better your English language the more doors open to you.

Therefore, I have attended ESOL classes at The Manchester College to improve my English and ideally that was my first step to access my higher education. I was incredibly grateful of my tutor (pictured right) who has helped and encouraged me in every step. 

Furthermore, I was fortunate enough to get voluntary work in my local opticians in Manchester. Shadowing an Optometrist regularly allowed me to observe the front line of the NHS. Seeing the image of the Diabetic Eye Screening sufferer and comparing it to the Eye screening of a normal person fascinated me and it makes me want to understand how Diabetes can affect the blood vessels.

Rassina Asaad in opticiansActing on this desire, it has motivated to study Biomedical Science. Currently, I am studying Functional Skills at The Manchester College. During this year in The Manchester College I have taken on the role of a Teaching Assistant in Information and communication technology classes and I am incredibly lucky and grateful that my teacher gave me a chance to do voluntary work in Level 1 and in Entry 3 classes.

Moreover, I have attended the Aim Higher online course and that showed me and introduced me how to access higher education and what is the route step-by-step. At the same time, I was pleased that I got scholarship from RefuAid to do a preparation course for university in the summer.

Ultimately, I got an offer from Keele University, University of Central Lancashire, and Johns Moore’s Liverpool to study Biomedical Science.

To sum up, my message to all young refugee who have left their lives behind, never ever give up. Step by step everything will be fine. You will meet the right people who will guide you. I know I did.

Georgina Herbert

Georgina Herbert from OET explains how they are working collaboratively to provide free scholarships so refugee nurses and doctors are able to work in the UK.Working with Refugees Georgina Herbert

OET, the English test for healthcare professionals, is working with the UK charity RefuAid to offer free tests to refugee doctors and nurses. In order to work in their profession in the UK, foreign-trained doctors and nurses are required to prove English proficiency by achieving a specific grade in a recognised English test.

OET was recently accepted in the UK by the General Medical Council, which regulates doctors; and the Nursing and Midwifery Council, which regulates nurses and midwives. Designed specifically for healthcare professionals, OET assesses English language skills using real healthcare scenarios, which means candidates prepare for the test using language that is both familiar and useful for their future career.

Academic Ceri Butler, who worked as a medical educator at University College London for 11 years, is currently a doctoral student focusing on research into the integration of refugee healthcare professionals into host countries. 

Butler says: “The longer refugee healthcare professionals are away from their profession, the more challenging it can be for them to return to work, and for many the English test is a significant hurdle.”

OET aims to lessen this hurdle by providing a number of refugee doctors and nurses with the opportunity to sit OET free of charge, as well as giving the candidates materials to assist in their test preparation. 

OET recently launched a free online preparation course, the Start for Success package, which includes grammar lessons, practice tests, sample answers, test taking tips and learning strategies, which will further assist candidates with preparation.

OET also hopes to engage the support of its test venue partners and preparation providers to give ongoing assistance to refugee healthcare professionals in the future.

Sujata Stead, OET’s CEO says the collaboration with RefuAid, which provides refugees with access to language tuition, education and employment opportunities will change lives. 

“Moving to another country, learning a new language and working in a different culture is daunting, even in the best of circumstances. OET is committed to helping refugee healthcare professionals overcome the challenge of proving English proficiency so they can work in the profession they’re qualified for and join the UK’s healthcare workforce,” she concluded.

Inspiring, training and supporting teachers working in marginalised communities

Bob Anderson from Mobile Education Partnerships gives a glimpse into the award-winning work that they have been doing to increase the English levels of teachers in Southeast Asia. 

English Class on Thai Myanmar border

Established in 2002 by British teachers Mobile Education Partnerships (MEP) is a specialist, award-winning educational charity working in communities affected by war, poverty and displacement on the Thai/Myanmar border and within Myanmar itself.

MEP has developed a unique model of teacher training that is both practical and sustainable using mobile units of British and Burmese trainers to reach poorly resourced, remote schools in refugee and migrant communities, where teachers have little or no training.

MEP is not a permanent presence but works for finite periods in partnership with local educational organisations, responding to needs by providing training and qualifications leading to local ownership of sustainable programmes.

Currently MEP works in the Karen refugee camps of the Thai/Myanmar border (pictured left), in war-torn Kachin State, Northern Myanmar where about 100,000 people are displaced by the continued fighting and in Mon State, Southern Myanmar where monastic schools cater for many children from internally displaced families.

In 2010, MEP, with the support of Harrow International School, Bangkok, introduced Cambridge English Qualifications for refugee and migrant teachers at their request. In addition to providing teachers with a highly valued internationally accredited certificate (below), by taking teachers through Cambridge courses, teachers are exposed to a range of teaching approaches and learning styles designed to enhance student outcomes.

Presentation of Cambridge Certificates for refugee and migrant teacher

These projects equip and support teachers to practice more effective teaching techniques designed to engage children and which can be applied across a range of subjects. The model we use is transferable and provides sustained in-school support for individual teachers.

To address the issue of sustainability MEP gradually developed the concept of a Cambridge Plus course for local teachers. The Cambridge Plus is a three phase programme which produces cohorts of trained local trainers with internationally accredited Cambridge certificates who can continue to carry out teacher training and the delivery of Cambridge courses independently in the future, with the potential to transform the futures of some of the most disadvantaged young people in Myanmar and Thailand.

MEP has been directly involved in the training of almost 2,000 teachers, produced text books now used by up to 18,000 refugee children and has taken 351 teachers through Cambridge English exams. In the last year alone, 89 trainee teachers took the MEP TESOL course in war-torn Kachin state and 3,000 children in 29 migrant schools benefited from MEP training and support.

MEP received the Charity of the Year Award 2011, and has been endorsed by world-renowned linguist Professor Noam Chomsky as an “excellent and constructive initiative”. Our Founder and Programme Director in the UK, Bob Anderson, was shortlisted for the prestigious Guardian International Development Achievement Award.

In January 2018 for its work with MEP in providing support for Cambridge exams and schools in the refugee and migrant communities of Thailand and in marginalised communities within Myanmar, Harrow International School, Bangkok, was awarded the British International Schools Award for Outstanding Community Initiative. 

Cambridge English’s Southeast Asia team and UK head office, as well as Durham University Refugee Action Group have also played a role in supporting this whole programme. As International schools from 38 countries were entered for this award, this programme could be regarded as one of the best partnership programmes in the world.

If you would like to find out more about the work of MEP or how you can get involved then please contact Bob Anderson, Programme Director 

Dr. Katherine Weber

Dr. Katherine Weber from FutureLearn highlights the power of online learning for refugees and how connections they make through social learning can help them to improve their lives.

I’m Partnership Manager & Academic Engagement Lead at FutureLearn, the social learning company. Our vision is to create a global community, where everyone learns together and enjoys access to the education they need to transform their lives.Katherine Weber

One of the great advantages of online education is its flexibility, and its capacity to open up resources to populations that have been excluded from traditional or face-to-face access.

The majority of our courses are available for free for the course duration, and our new, sponsored course model allows partners to offer learners unlimited free access to a course as well as a free downloadable Certificate of Achievement.

Where refugees are concerned, we’re fortunate to work with partners who are creating innovative, high-quality courses specifically for these populations and the people who work with them, as well as courses that help explain migration to the wider public.

What’s currently available?

Cambridge Assessment English is at the forefront of this group of partners, with the courses Volunteering with Refugees, which is aimed at those who are or would like to volunteer to teach English to refugees, and Aim Higher: Access to Higher Education for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, (pictured filming below) which is aimed at refugees in the UK looking for a path to start or continue their higher education.

Man and women being filmed

Both the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Deakin University offer courses that help learners understand humanitarian health crises and humanitarian aid. Learners who complete Deakin’s course can also join a full degree on Development and Humanitarian Action on FutureLearn.

For learners who are curious about migration generally, the European University Institute offers a pair of courses, Why Do People Migrate? Facts and Why Do People Migrate? Theories, which aim to help dispel common misconceptions and explain the phenomenon of migration in greater depth.

What’s coming up?

King’s College London are producing 12 courses to run on FutureLearn as part of the PADILIEA project (Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access), to help those displaced by the Syrian crisis. This project starts with two pre-intermediate English language courses this summer, with further courses around nursing and entrepreneurship in development.

The University of Strathclyde and CELCIS (Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland), who developed Getting Care Right for All Children: Implementing the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children, are working on further learning that pertains specifically to those who work with children on the move. University College London's newly launched RELIEF Centre focuses on 'how to build a prosperous and inclusive future for communities affected by mass displacement', including a specific project for refugees in Lebanon.

And this month, the University of Glasgow is launching a course for those who work directly with refugees, Working Supportively with Refugees: Principles, Skills and Perspectives.

Building supportive communities

FutureLearn’s pedagogy is based on the theory of social learning. This means that discussion is integrated into every step of our courses, and learners are encouraged to help each other along the way and to interact with the course team.

Our hope for all of our courses is that they help learners to develop their knowledge through the structure of the course narrative and the discussion that it provokes. For refugees in particular, we hope the connections they make through social learning can help them improve their lives and open up new opportunities long after the course has ended.

Adrian Matthews

Adrian Matthews, Trustee at Cambridge Refugee Resettlement Campaign, talks about supporting Cambridge refugees with computer literacy skills to give them the skills and confidence to prepare for the future world of work.

For newly arrived refugees, IT skills are vital to education and work prospects, or simply for making the most of what the internet has to offer. This is particularly importantCRRC Trustee Adrian Matthews recieving Cambridge laptops for children in the newly settled families, for whom being able to use a computer is almost a requirement for secondary and college study. But for refugees the cost of buying a computer for the family or for a child at school or college is prohibitive.

That’s why Cambridge Refugee Resettlement Campaign (CRRC) conducted an audit of the 18 families resettled by Cambridge City Council to establish which families to prioritise for the allocation of second-hand laptops, which were kindly donated by Cambidge Assessment. (Pictured right with the author) 

Before being allocated to the families most in need, the computers were updated by CRRC’s IT team to ensure they have all the appropriate software and features.

The team then set up an initial training session at the Jesus Lane Friends Meeting House on 20 May for those who needed it. A group of around 10 people attended this session, during which the IT team were able to answer any computer related questions and install more software as required.

Since they are mainly Syrian refugees, it is important for them to have access to Arabic software; CRRC volunteers were able to show them how to access an online Arabic keyboard and other useful features such as a free online translation tool.

“It was great to see that all of those who attended the session had such a keen interest to learn about computers. There were people with varying computer skills but I think we managed to ensure that everyone benefited and got what they wanted out of this session.” Marcin, IT volunteer

Another volunteer, Nina, told the group about the possibility of organising a coding club for the children in the families. Learning about computers and programming in a friendly and fun way would build up their confidence and give them skills that will be crucial for the jobs of the future.

If you’d like to be a CRRC volunteer or would like to help in any way, please visit our website.

The School Bus Project

Rowena Gerrett from the School Bus Project discusses how education is a human right that should be accessible to all, and if you can’t get to a school, the school will come to you.

Working with Refugees - School Bus Project logoAt the School Bus Project, we believe that if you can’t get to school, then school will come to you! Article 26 of the United Nations Convention of Human Rights states that everybody has the right to an education, and this fundamental principle is at the core of what we do.

As over half of the people currently displaced around the world are under the age of 18, and research shows that just one in two refugees access primary education and one in four access secondary education, the need for educational provision focussed specifically on the needs of displaced people is paramount. In Northern France, we undertake direct delivery of educational sessions six days per week, in a space where very little other educational opportunities are available for the communities we work with.

In addition to direct delivery, our charity works towards a number of goals. We work to support communities that want toWorking with Refugees - School Bus cropped provide education to refugees and migrants in their own area, providing training and logistical support. For example, we are currently supporting the development of a new educational and well-being project ‘Heart on Wheels’ which will be operating in Northern Greece.

We work in conjunction with advocacy groups, such as Help Refugees and Safe Passage, seeking to place appropriate pressure on authorities to work to change the situation, most especially in the area of safeguarding for minors – a situation that is currently far from acceptable.

We work thematically in our teaching: our first goal is for the people we work with to feel comfortable, heard and respected. It is only within this context that anyone is able to learn, especially those who are experiencing on-going trauma.

Secondly, we work to develop skills. We aim to help prepare the people we work with for the experiences they will have in the future, hopefully including re-integration into mainstream education of some form. The sharing of language and culture is at the heart of this work.

Through our varied content, we seek to develop language and communication skills, and we make use of English, French and German, in conjunction with the plethora of languages that are spoken by the migrant communities we work with. We have been fortunate to work with some fantastic language teachers, who have brought their expertise and experience to the project, alongside mainstream education teachers, social workers, speech and language therapists and youth workers.

Big yellow busThere are a number of ways that people can support the work that we do. We are keen to engage new volunteers with the requisite experience, and provide training both online and in situ. We have an ever-growing network of schools (School Friends programme) and universities (UNIfied programme) that we link with and welcome additions to this.

During Refugee Week, we encourage people to take the time to consider the ways in which their own educational experiences have shaped and benefitted them. There is currently an entire generation of young people who are being denied these opportunities. Any way in which you can support projects such as ours and the many other incredible ones operating, both in the UK and overseas, will be helping to redress that balance and provide young displaced people with the educational opportunities they deserve.

Find out more about the School Bus Project and how to get involved by visiting or follow us on Twitter.

Refugee Week takes place every year across the world in the week around World Refugee Day. The week includes a programme of arts, cultural and educational events and activities that celebrates the contribution of refugees to society and promotes a better understanding of why people seek sanctuary.

Cambridge Assessment has been involved in a number of initiatives to help refugees and forced migrants access education. If you can see an opportunity for us to work together to support refugees and forced migrants with their learning, then please get in touch.

Research Matters

Research Matters 32 promo image

Research Matters is our free biannual publication which allows us to share our assessment research, in a range of fields, with the wider assessment community.