An interview with Rabia Nasimi Part II: Thoughts on Cambridge and Higher Education for Refugees

By Jamie Hancock

*Read Part I of the interview here.

Higher Education
When we asked Rabia whether she felt universities could do more for prospective applicants from refugee backgrounds prior to applying, she highlighted the need for information to be more visible. “Websites”, she said, should provide “information in different languages”, especially for parents who might not be comfortable working through the piles of university guidance available in English. Outreach initiatives, such as visits to schools by access officers and successful students from similar backgrounds, are also key “for all types of students”: “I remember I went back into my school – to my sixth form – to talk about sociology at university”. “And they were asking me: what do you do? What did you get for your exam? How did you find applying? Why did you apply?” Answers to “those kinds of questions, but for a refugee situation, would be useful”. But this kind of information is not particularly visible, in her experience. Rabia suggested that there should be “someone at universities that can be a point of contact for these kind of questions” – someone who can be easily found and talked to.  Rabia offered one potential solution: to advertise this position through other organisations such as ACAA. If there’s a refugee organisation in the area, say that ‘In our university we have this officer who could answer questions.’” Her argument was partly that universities need to become more proactive.

Rabia made it clear that all marginalised groups should have this kind of attention, and that “separating refugees” from other students is not necessarily helpful. But, nonetheless, she said that there were facts refugees in particular need to know. For example, some find it “really difficult to know what [qualifications] would be equivalent in the UK, and if not, what can be done – do I have to redo a whole degree if I want to do a masters here?”. “Even for me, when people come to ask me about it, I find it difficult to find that information easily on websites”. It can be hard, and even daunting, for people or organisations to approach universities with their questions. “They wonder, will they get back? Are there any other organisations contacting them? Who is it that we contact?”

Facts about scholarships are exactly the kinds of details she felt can be hard to find without help. Though many scholarships are now available for refugees, “people don’t necessarily know that they exist, or how they can make an application.” She suggested creating a mechanism where all the universities that offer scholarships for refugees” could put together “a database” – so “you can go on UCAS and search”. Learning about scholarships can often be crucial – though those with refugee status have access to student finance, those still waiting for their status are considered as international students and therefore must pay international fees. Scholarships help “people that might be otherwise put off from studying at university because of the costs”. “What happens to those people?” Are “they allowed to be educated as well?” Some might not even know if they are “allowed to enter higher education.”

On Cambridge
Of course, we couldn’t help but ask her about her recent experiences as a student at Cambridge. She praised the University – and her college, Lucy Cavendish, in particular – for being welcoming and “pro-active” in working for representation. “They try to ensure that there are different voices that can be seen, both on the website, or in publications, so people can feel more confident about applying or asking a question.” They don’t need to be afraid of “what people are going to assume” about them. “When I did first come”, “everyone said ‘Do you need any help?’ or ‘We’re happy to help you.’” She mentioned the Cavendish Chronicle, for which she is BME editor – as an example. ““The aim of the BME editor” is “to ensure that the information that is written includes diverse opinions and people from different backgrounds, so that” current and prospective students “looking at this particular publication” “from the outside” can feel “like this University is open to people from different backgrounds and its not what people might think, from what’s been said to them.” They don’t need to be afraid of “what people are going to assume” about them.

At this point, Esther asked Rabia a question about how refugees (or others from marginalised backgrounds) can go about making Oxbridge applications, with their very different history and type of education. Rabia made a very interesting reply: lots of refuges, who “might not know of many universities”, “know Oxford and Cambridge – because when they weren’t in the UK, they’ve probably heard of them in their country.” “They’re like – ‘Oh My God, that person went to Cambridge, that’s amazing.’ They seem to already possess a lot of information and sometimes in some ways, it can be negative if that’s the only understanding that you have about good universities.” She described a hypothetical situation where a parent might have unrealistic expectations for their child to attend Oxford or Cambridge, out of a lack of understanding about the difficulties involved for entry. If the child feels that they might not get in, or isn’t “really at that expected level, it can put [them] off other universities.” Refugees might not appreciate the fact that they can “always come back for a masters or come back for a PhD, it’s not the end”.

Finally, we asked Rabia if she had any advice for people from refugee backgrounds considering university. “Start to look at entry requirements quite early on” so “that you’re not just relying on your results, and you can start to build your personal statement.” “You should give yourself some time and you should start looking at university whilst you’re in college.” For Cambridge in particular, she emphasises that students shouldn’t feel intimidated: “don’t be put off by the name” – “there’s no harm in trying.” Practically, she also advised preparing applications well in advance, to avoid rushing, and to be aware of the early Oxbridge application deadline.

As our interview drew to a close, Rabia remarked on how the media attention on her background was an interesting experience for her. Reflecting on her childhood, she says the circumstances of her arrival did not necessarily affect her upbringing and that she had never before been so conscious of herself as a refugee. She was never “constantly thinking about it” because, she says, “you’ve moved on from that”.


Rabia Nasimi Interview: Personal Experiences and Voluntary Work (Part 1)

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.