This blog was written by Hannah Gaffey, an MPhil student studying Education, Globalisation, and International Development at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on the educational experiences and aspirations of young asylum seekers in the UK. This blog has also been published on the INEE website.

© @instahangaf (Hannah Gaffey) on Instagram

In recent weeks, there has been increased media attention given to people crossing the English Channel in small inflatable boats. On the one hand, public figures like the Home Secretary are asserting that the people making the crossings are not genuine asylum seekers and should be intercepted. On the other side of the debate, NGO’s such as Help Refugees are stating that these extremely vulnerable people are seeking asylum from various conflicts and deserve compassion and safety. I have noticed that those on both sides of this controversy fail to acknowledge that the people seeking refuge are individuals with thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams. One side categorises this group of people as criminals, the other labelling them as victims.

We must listen to the stories and opinions of people seeking asylum, rather than making assumptions about what they want and need.

Based on my MPhil research, which documented the post-compulsory educational experiences and aspirations of three young asylum seekers in the UK named Aryan, Maleesha and Yaman, I demonstrate the importance of listening to the voices of those who have been displaced and centring their knowledge. This blog post will outline one thing that I learnt from each participant (although there were many), in order to illustrate how we as educators and academics can better understand the reality of people’s lived experiences if we take enough time to sit and listen. Here is a summary of what I learnt:

  1. Gaining a higher education helps young asylum-seeking people to escape monotony

 “Being an asylum seeker you feel very stuck, there’s nothing much you can do so I really wanted to get out of this situation and try and make a life”. “If I didn’t get this scholarship, I would be at home stuck with nothing to do basically and having to depend on people and organisations just to survive”. “I feel like without a proper education as an asylum seeker you can’t do much in this country”. – Maleesha

 Maleesha is currently studying Sustainable Development as a result of winning one of just two scholarships for asylum-seeking students at her university. As indicated by the quotes above, studying at university offers an opportunity to escape the tedium of life as an asylum seeker in the UK, as you are unable to go to work. For Maleesha, university became an opportunity to study a subject she loved and forge new relationships and connections beyond her family network.

  1. Free ESOL classes are really important for new beginnings and integration

 “We begin our lives in the most short-term period because everybody knows English a bit before coming here so it’s a good advantage for us”. – Yaman

 Yaman is working towards taking his IELTS and UKCAT examinations in order to be able to apply for medical school. As he expressed in the quote above, being able to speak English (as well as Turkish, Spanish and French) before he arrived in the UK has helped him to begin a more ‘normal’ life after facing persecution is his home country. In our interviews, Yaman spoke a lot about the importance of improving his English in order to get a good job and become integrated into British society.

  1. Young people seeking asylum will keep working towards their goal regardless of the obstacles

 “I believe that the asylum seekers in this country when they arrive, they are quite desperate to be established, to do something for this community, to be here. So, if we can give them education, I’m quite sure that they will give us something back which will be positive”. – Aryan

 Aryan is currently studying Law at university after campaigning for his local universities to award more scholarships for asylum-seeking students and becoming the recipient of one. Aryan’s dream is to open the world’s first international immigration court to help people like him who have become victim to human trafficking and slavery. Aryan’s activism is rooted in his unending sense of positivity, he is an agent of change in his own life and the lives of others. After receiving a study ban from the Home Office, he successfully overturned the decision and won the right for all people seeking asylum to be exempt from study bans. Aryan’s tenacity does not stop with the educational campaigns, he has also been dropping food parcels off at people’s houses every day during the coronavirus lockdown.

In sum: “as an asylum seeker we’ve been through a lot […] I just want people to respect the circumstances of people and where they are coming from and the kind of experiences. Not take it as a story but really try to empathise with it”. – Maleesha