How Universities of Sanctuary are transforming lives through learning

31 Jan 2018

DCU is among three Irish Universities of Sanctuary. Image: DCU

Irish educational institutions are providing major opportunities to those who need it most.

According to a 2017 report from the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, we are currently seeing the highest level of global displacement on record, with an estimated 65.6m people forced from their homes. 22.5m of these are refugees and more than half of these are under the age of 18.

The City of Sanctuary is an organisation that supports efforts made in Ireland and the UK to build a culture of hospitality for those seeking sanctuary.

Third-level institutions that earn the title of University of Sanctuary have to show a commitment to inclusion, diversity and the creation of educational pathways for asylum seekers and refugees.

DCU was first in line

Dublin City University (DCU) was Ireland’s first University of Sanctuary, receiving the designation in December 2016.

At the time, DCU president Prof Brian MacCraith said: “I am particularly pleased that the initiatives leading to our recognition were not ‘top-down’ but came spontaneously from our student body and staff in their efforts to reach out and support those in the refugee and asylum community.”

The university recently published its annual report for 2017, giving details on just how the designation has been making a major difference. It has provided 15 academic scholarships (five undergraduate and 10 postgraduate) to applicants who are currently in the country as refugees and asylum seekers.

Candidates who originally hailed from Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Pakistan and Cameroon among others received online scholarships with DCU Connected.

Supporting those living under Direct Provision

The Migrant English Language Literacy and Intercultural Education (MELLIE) project began in March 2017 and brought DCU students and people living in the Mosney direct provision (DP) centre together through storytelling.

Another notable initiative is the Hope Mosney Book Club, a collective reading club that meets to share insights and exchange ideas.

DCU also launched Refugee Week on 29 January, which aims to raise awareness of the difficulties faced by those in DP. One of the key highlights is the €21.60 campaign, with a number of students living on this particular sum per week and documenting their experiences on social media.

Nick Henderson, CEO of the Irish Refugee Council, said: “DCU have led the way in providing meaningful education opportunities for people seeking asylum in Ireland.

“The innovative mixture of scholarships, English teaching, advocacy campaigns and sport are crucial in bringing real, positive change to people’s lives.”

Joining the fold

University of Limerick joined DCU as a University of Sanctuary in June 2017, outlining a series of commitments to people living under DP over the next three years. The university will offer scholarships for up to 17 people over the age of 22 living in DP.

University College Cork is the latest Irish third-level institution to be granted University of Sanctuary status. Seven asylum seekers and refugees will receive full scholarships, as well as bursaries to cover travel and expenses.

Speaking earlier in January, UCC senior vice-president Prof Caroline Fennell said: “Through the range of initiatives cultivated over many years in UCC, we are dedicated to providing spaces to learn about what sanctuary means, to develop a sustainable culture of welcome, and to share our practices and initiatives with communities and other higher-education institutions.”

UCC’s inaugural Refugee Week will begin on 5 February, with a series of events including Blueprints, an exhibition featuring artwork by young asylum seekers.

One recipient of a DCU undergraduate scholarship summed up the importance of the initiative: “The University of Sanctuary scholarship has had a massive impact on my life. Education is, to me, a very important tool to have in life because, despite an individual’s background or circumstances, the one thing that can never be taken from them is their knowledge.

“I’m greatly thankful for the opportunity to have access to a world that will help me improve myself for the better.”

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects