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Six Syrian refugees settled in Barnet flourish as students at MDX

"MDX helped me a lot and made me feel there are still people living to help others... My dreams became reality and I hope yours will too" - aspiring film director Samer Alhaffar

Five years after Middlesex University Students' Union (MDXSU) campaigned for the resettlement of refugees from the war in Syria, six Syrians given refuge in Barnet are enrolled on or have graduated from MDX degree programmes.

Brothers Alaa and Bahaa and their cousin Taghrid Alibrahim, Asmaa Abdulkarim, Samer Alhaffar and Nisrin Kakhya were settled by Barnet Council under the government's Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. Bahaa has graduated in MSc Banking and Finance with Merit and Asmaa is on the four year MSci Mathematics with Computing programme. Nisrin is a third year and Taghrid a first year in BA Early Childhood Studies, while Samer and Alaa are current BA Film students. All have been supported with free education, and all but one also had free pre-sessional courses to bring their English up to the required level.

Asmaa, who grew up in Idlib, was 21 when she fled to Turkey, and gave birth to the first of her two children three months after coming to London. While she felt almost overwhelmed by challenges in her first term studying Maths at MDX, she credits the university with giving her confidence and making her believe she could achieve anything.

"Everything came in one go: new country, new people and new system of education" Asmaa says. "In my first year I was two weeks late [for the start of the course]. I remember looking at the board in my first lecture and thinking, what are they talking about? I started crying and crying. But by the second term, I went on to YouTube to practise topics and tried very hard.

"With programme leader [Associate Professor] Matthew Jones's lessons, I felt I am doing great, I am doing well. One memory I don't forget is Matthew welcoming me with a smile and inviting me to come and talk to him. So my first impression of MDX was, oh I'll be OK".

"I was very lucky with my classmates who were from Poland, Pakistan, Malaysia, Somalia. Outside lessons we were always together, having lunch after presentations and working together".

Asmaa says what she really loves about London, and came as a surprise to her is its diversity. Her first experience of this was at Finchley Progressive Synagogue - a supporter of Citizens UK's Resettlement Pledge campaign alongside other community and religious organisations on the Barnet Refugee Welcome Board. The synagogue ran sessions for refugees every Friday to help them find jobs and build their future. It was at one of these that Asmaa met Ayah and Mohammed from MDXSU, who inspired her to come and study at MDX.

Asmaa says her father back in Syria is hugely proud of her achievement - "you cannot imagine how happy he is" - her husband has taken over much of the childcare and does the school run to support her, and her young daughter tells her she wants to become a mathematician too. Currently working as an Arabic and Quranic teacher, Asmaa aspires to work as a data analyst or in education management, and would love the opportunity to take her Maths to PhD level.

"Asmaa is a very good student and has achieved a lot on her degree programme" says Matthew Jones. "We’re a close-knit family on the maths degrees and she and her classmates always work together closely. It’s been a pleasure teaching her and seeing her confidence grow. I am proud that the university is involved in this program to provide education to Syrian refugees at a time when there is so much negativity surrounding this. I firmly believe education is the key to supporting and enabling people from diverse backgrounds to achieve success in whatever they end up doing."

Alaa, who grew up in Daraa in the south of Syria, studied Pharmacy for his first degree. Months after arriving in London in November 2016, he was diagnosed with bowel cancer and had to have several tumours removed. Recovering in hospital, he reflected what he wanted to do with his life: rather than doing a conversion and a Masters in Pharmacy, which would take three years, he made a decision that "I would do something different, and something I really like and really enjoy," and that given his health, was flexible and possible to do from anywhere.

He set on the idea of studying Film, with a view to becoming an editor or film designer. He chose MDX as it was close to where he was living in Barnet, and he had a link because of the student union's campaign.

"Going back to school and studying again, different from the way I studied back home, gave me some social skills, helped me to improve my [English] language, helped me with technology, it helped in lots of ways" Alaa says.

"I feel now I am at home. I like English culture. I am in touch with many Syrians here". He loves the variety of arts in London - it was here that he saw his first production of a musical.

He finds the environment in MDX very friendly and his tutors including David Heinemann, David Cottis and Anne Robinson very helpful and understanding of each student's situation. "Whenever I have any concern I speak to them," he says.

In the course of his degree he's made experimental shorts, written and co-produced a radio play, and made a short film for Refugee Week during the first lockdown, reflecting on how refugees feel transplanted to a foreign country. He's found lockdown tough - because of his illness he's been advised to shield at home with his wife and their daughter.

From the experience of the radio play he is drawn towards working in sound, perhaps for an editing house or a radio station. The opportunity to study film at MDX "made a big impact on my life: it came at the right time," he says. After all his suffering, "it brought back positive feelings and helped me understand what I wanted to do. I am now someone who is confident and able to support myself and my family".

Taghrid, who had studied to high school level at home in Syria, earned a Level 1 Childcare diploma from Barnet & Southgate College when she first came to London. She decided to build on this and her experience as a mother of young children with a BA in Early Childhood Studies. She hopes to become a nursery teacher.

She credits Paul Kirk, Nancy Wallace, Anna Chatterton, Alison Lord and Monna Rizvi for all their support through her time at MDX, and in particular International Preparatory Programmes hourly academic Monica Fairbairn for helping her improve her academic writing and motivating her - "I will never forget her advice".

"I would like to say a huge thank you to the MDX community and people in Barnet as they helped me meet my dream" Taghrid says. "I will try my best to be as good as you think and make you proud of me".

Nisrin was an Early Childhood Studies student at Al-Baath University in her native Homs and then at Jinan University in Tripoli, Lebanon, before she arrived in the UK in 2016.

A mother of two, she chose MDX to continue her studies in the same field as it was close to where she was living in Edgware. Enrolling was "the greatest thing ever in my life". The practice-based approach was "totally different to what I studied before - much, much better. I feel that I’m learning every day". Her experience of doing a nursery observation in her first year "gave me huge confidence that one day I am going to be a teacher".

Now in her third and final year, she praises the UniHub system and her tutors Dr Mona Sakr and Dr Jacqueline Harding for being "very supportive – you send an email and they understand the circumstances", while Business and Management lecturer Dr Louise Boulter was "a great leader" in her approach on one module.

"I appreciate every single thing they gave us," says Nisrin. She plans to do a PGCE and says in 10 years' time, she hopes to be teaching at a university.

Samer enrolled on the BA Film programme at MDX after doing voluntary work for a charity and then working at the checkout at IKEA when he first came to London. Before he left Syria, he had run a perfume shop with his brother. He aspires to become a director and "make films which encourage people to keep trying".

"Middlesex University helped me a lot and made me feel there are still people living to help others" says Samer. "A big thanks to all of you who helped me get success in my life... My dreams became reality and I hope yours will too".

Director of International Preparatory Programmes and Exchanges Paul Kirk said: “MDX is proud to have supported these students through pre-sessional courses and degree programmes and helped their inclusion into the local and national community. We are delighted and humbled to hear how much they valued the experience of studying with us, making friends and taking first steps on their professional journeys in their chosen fields”

Dipti Pardeshi, Chief of Mission of International Organisation of Migration UK - the United Nations organisation that worked with the British Government to implement the resettlement scheme - said: “It is heartening to see these students thrive on both an academic and a personal level here in the UK. It shows the importance of legal pathways such as resettlement for those fleeing conflict and persecution and that a whole of society approach is key to their integration and social cohesion.

"IOM has been supporting the resettlement of refugees to the UK since 2004 and we will continue to work with partners towards facilitating safe and dignified migration and to enhance integration outcomes to help build multi-cultural, thriving and harmonious communities”.

A Barnet Council spokesperson said: “Since 2016 a total of 17 families comprising 50 people have been resettled in Barnet through the programme. “Families are provided with housing, English language classes and other support to enable them to access education, training and employment. Barnet Council is extremely proud of the achievements of all our resettled refugees, and very grateful to MDX for providing these six students with the opportunities to pursue their dreams with such success”.

Finchley Progressive Synagogue Rabbi Rebecca Birk said: "We had the dream to save 15 families, 50 people who might come under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme into Barnet". "We weren’t sure the leader of the borough would say yes, but after much campaigning we managed and were so proud of these fabulous families coming and settling and growing into Barnet citizens.

"I was thrilled that MDX agreed to work with us and accept these ambitious students who wanted to ameliorate their lives and give back. Alaa, Bahaa, Taghrid, Asmaa, Samer and Nisrin have become wonderful friends and I wish them much congratulations on their well deserved progress in the lives they are building here".

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