By Jamie Hancock
*Read Part II of the interview here.
Rabia Nasimi arrived with her family in the UK when she was five years old. They had come as refugees from Afghanistan, fleeing persecution under the Taliban regime. Together, they faced difficulties common to many who enter in their position – applying for refugee status, finding work and learning to navigate the British education system.
Eighteen years later, Rabia is now a Cambridge PhD student, undertaking research in Sociology at Lucy Cavendish College. She is also heavily involved with the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA) – a charity set up in 2001 by her father, Dr Nooralhaq Nasimi, to “Build Better Futures” for refugees with similar backgrounds. Last week, Esther and I met with Rabia in a busy café to talk about her experiences, in particular challenges those with refugee backgrounds face when trying to enter Higher Education.
Commenting on her work at ACAA, Rabia says that at times refugees can find it difficult to relate to others who haven’t been refugees themselves because they worry that others may not appreciate the gravity of their struggles. Like many other organisations that are supporting refugees, ACAA helps to reduce these anxieties by providing someone with experience of what they have lived through, who can act as a role model from their own cultural community. Rabia adds that organisations such as ACAA might also be more sensitive to their cultural needs, citing an example where Muslim women “might be less comfortable to learn in a mixed setting. And in that situation, we can bridge that gap”.
Education and access to information lies at the root of much of what ACAA does, from providing guidance about the school system, to helping fill out forms and write CVs, to English language lessons. “Often”, Rabia says, “middle-aged people find it more challenging.” Many are not sure whether their old qualifications are useful in the UK, and having had established careers in their home countries they might be reluctant “to start all over from the beginning”. This, coupled with the potential issues of earning money and acquiring language skills, can be a barrier to education. In particular, mothers who are balancing studying whilst raising their children can find it difficult to stay motivated.
Rabia was also keen to point out solutions, however. “Parents”, she told us, “can be encouraged to learn English if you make it clear that the importance of language isn’t limited to further education and employment, for example it can help their children’s education” by allowing them to engage more with their schooling. She gave the example of a mother who misread her son’s school report: “she thought it said he was stupid and this was what she was saying to him”. However, after talking to the ACAA, the mother was able to understand that it wasn’t the case at all. “He was doing fine and it was the average grade for his age group.” Finding these methods of encouragement is a recurring theme.
On her childhood
Following from her comment on primary schooling, we asked Rabia about her own experiences growing up. “I came to the UK when I was five, which meant that, unlike others, I picked everything up relatively quickly” – though it was “tricky to learn the language and also understand the system at the same time.” She told us, however, this can also change the “dynamic[s]” of refugee families. Children usually rely on their parents for explanations and role models. Yet, because they are more integrated into their environment (through schooling and friends), this relationship can be reversed where “you see parents relying on their children to explain things to them”. Rabia also described how conscious children can be of their backgrounds in comparison to other children, especially at events when parents and children come together. All of this, she told us, means that children might start to “look for role models in other places.”
Rabia also recalls the limited information available for her parents regarding the education system. She says this could create a “sense of disappointment” among parents because if, for example, they want their child “to study law or medicine, but they don’t know what the required GCSE subjects or grades are. That can be difficult, explaining what the options actually are.” As with her story about the mother who misinterpreted her son’s grades, these issues can affect family relationships negatively. “Parents shouldn’t be left assuming how the system works.” Instead, Rabia stressed the need for those working with refugees to be informed about “what they want to achieve, what they think benefits them the most and also to highlight the issues that they are concerned about”, in order to be able to give them the most useful advice.
In the next part to this interview, Rabia will be sharing about her experience in Cambridge and her thoughts on how access to higher education can be improved for refugees. Read it here.