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The Syrian refugee with a scholarship named after him

The Syrian refugee with a scholarship named after him

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 Migrant Voice -
 Migrant Voice - The Syrian refugee with a scholarship named after him

In 2018 the expensive top-of-the-market Marlborough School of English and Culture, part of a 170-year-old institution founded for the sons of the clergy, will offer its first Al-Rashid Scholarships.

Al-Rashid? Who's he, and how did he leave his mark in the high downland and wide valleys that the English county of Wiltshire describes as "quintessentially English"?

The scholarships are for refugee teenagers living in the UK, and are named after Ahmad Al-Rashid, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee who inspired pupils when he visited the school earlier this year to talk about his flight from the civil war, his journey to Europe and his new life as an activist and organiser in Britain.

Marlborough's glossy brochure tells of his "heart-stopping account" of the escape from Syria, and recounts how he facilitated a team game with students to explain aspects of his journey, and spent the morning in a classroom discussion of the Syrian conflict, displaced peoples, global migration and media coverage of conflict: "The students gained a huge amount from the experience and were incredibly moved to get to know Ahmad and to hear his story first-hand in such an intimate setting."

Ahmad was born into a farming family in Aleppo. "Life was peaceful and calm. It was village life, basic and simple, and I enjoyed the countryside and beauty of the place and the simple way of living there," he recalls.

His parents were keen on education, and he graduated in English literature from Aleppo University - "the first person in my extended family to go to university. My hope was to work with children in my area to teach them English and improve their language skills."

But, as for millions of Syrians, the war changed everything. "We never expected it would reach Syria, but it did. It reached my area in late 2012 with aerial bombardment, barrel bombs and mortars. The town became a target by all parties to the conflict. The majority of the population fled their homes because of the shelling and clashes." 

Ahmad joined the exodus, fleeing to northern Iraq - until ISIS arrived ("I had gone from one hell in Syria, to another"), when he returned to north-east Syria. During this period he taught English as a volunteer in Syrian refugee camps and later worked with the UN helping Syrian refugees and displaced Iraqis.

It proved to be a temporary stop: "With the Syrian war raging and the enormous scale of destruction I started to lose hope of any solution to the war and I decided to move on." That meant a 55-day journey across seas and borders. Just as his English later proved an asset in establishing himself in Britain, his trip was also exceptional in that he documented it as part of a BBC series, 'Exodus: Our Journey to Europe'. 

Partly as a result of that TV exposure - as well his following on social media and his likeability - he has taken part in meetings in Parliament, appeared on BBC, ITV and Sky, and had articles published in The Guardian and The Independent. He often speaks at events to raise awareness about the plight of Syrian refugees.

He is now a consultant for a variety of organisations on the integration of Syrians in the UK. 

He knows his own experience is not typical. "It's very tough for many Syrian refugees. There's lots of potential and talent. What they need are opportunities." But, he points out, "many are living with trauma. Even if people have skills, even with a job and a salary, they are unsure of their future, and they are apart from their family and friends, their hearts and minds are back in Syria. Not everyone succeeds."

Ahmad is a great believer in education: "Education is vital for Syrians now and it will have a crucial part in the post-war phase. We need to invest in education as it’s a tool of mass construction." Within a week of arriving in the UK he started looking for opportunities to continue his studies. 

"What helped me was the new friends I made in the UK. They told me that there are many opportunities and they helped and supported me fill applications and look for funding. The support from universities was overwhelming. I received a scholarship for a master's in violence, conflict and development at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and was financially supported by the Said Foundation."

The future?

"It is hard to tell. For now, I am working on issues related to education and support for refugee students. I am interested in the integration of refugees in the UK. I am hoping one day the war will come to an end in Syria so we can go back and help rebuild it. Our time here is a great opportunity to learn and gain skills and hopefully these skills will be passed and transferred to other fellow Syrians and others in the region."  

* For details of the scholarship, email the Course Director: sjponsford@marlboroughcollege.org

* Exodus: Our Journey to Europe: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07ky6ft

* Ahmad al-Rashid @ 5x15: https://vimeo.com/201923545/