When you become a refugee – a person who has escaped from their own country for political, religious, or economic reasons or because of a war - they lose not only a home. You feel a part of your identity falling off, while the strong bonds built with friends and families back home are also lost along the way. You are suddenly placed in a new environment with no one to rely on. Just imagine how much courage it takes to rebuild your life from scratch.

To commemorate the World Refugee Day on 20 June, the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) has produced a series of podcasts and articles, bringing together stories of refugees from Afghanistan, Thailand/Myanmar, Nepal/Bhutan, Haiti and Rwanda.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, at least 79.5 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes. Among them 26 million are refugees, half of whom are under the age of 18.  Almost 50 per cent of all school age refugee children are out of school and just 3 percent of refugee students are currently enrolled in higher education. The reasons for this scenario are closely related to the lack of emotional and financial support and often poorly designed government policies in host countries.

Higher education provides the refugees with opportunities to change their lives dramatically, which can be beneficial to both the refugees and their host communities in the long term. In this series, UNAI introduces the stories of Neh Meh, Dawood, Alyne, Lok Darjee and Donaldo, who have sought higher education as means to make their lives better.

Aliny Wa Sibomana is a 23 years old student, pursuing a public health degree at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Though she may look like a typical student in the middle of her studies, she has a unique background that she has mostly kept to herself. Her parents were killed in the aftermaths of the Rwandan Genocide, which took place in 1994 and left 80,000 Rwandans dead in that year.

“My parents were killed because they were considered to be spies. My uncle, who had survived the atrocity, took me and my siblings to Malawi.” After the tragic event, Aliny, her uncle and her siblings were forced to start a new life there.

In Malawi, Aliny’s uncle eventually got a job and managed to pay for her studies at a private high school. While she attended the school, she came across an opportunity to pursue higher education in Canada. “This is the only chance I will ever have to change my life and turn my story around”, she thought. The competition for the sponsorship program to study in Canada was fierce. Among hundreds of applications, only around a dozen were chosen. Aliny managed to be one of them.

Participation of refugees in higher education can strengthen national education systems, to the benefit of both host and refugee communities. But reality is stark. Aliny is one of the three per cent of refugees who have access to higher education, compared to the 37 per cent global higher education access rate. UNHCR and its partners are committed to ensuring that 15 per cent of young refugee women and men can access higher education by 2030.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic casts a dark shadow on reaching that target. Rachel Criswell, Senior Policy Officer at UNHCR, warned at a webinar organized by UNAI that “COVID-19 is going to make this worse for girls because so many more of them have left school, and in some cases due to food insecurity and other considerations, have entered into early marriage and will never return to their studies.”

In such a context, it was natural for Aliny to feel uneasy about students back in Africa. Yes, she was lucky and was selected for the opportunity. But what about all the others, who were not chosen? “Some refugees have dreams and their dreams die in those refugee camps. That is why they often get lured to bad behaviors, such as drug abuse. This is all because they cannot get what they need.”

Through these reflections, Aliny concluded that it was now her turn to give back for all the support she had received. She chose to major in public health, in order to acquire the skills necessary to take care of people back home. “Growing up in a refugee camp, I saw how hard it was for people to get access to a quality health care system, having no money to pay for medicines or to afford private hospitals. The major will let me do research that will help promote people's health, especially for those that are poor and live in bad conditions.” And despite her hesitancy to talk about what had happened in her childhood, she chose to speak to UNAI on this occasion to deliver her message to refugee students around the world.

“Keep on working hard. Advocate for yourselves so you could get access to higher education.” But from her own experience, Aliny knows that is not enough: The refugee students are working hard, but have they been rewarded for such efforts? That is why she calls on governments and organizations around the world to take additional measures to provide refugee students with more learning opportunities. “It is important that more governments and organizations step in and help the students achieve their dreams. This opportunity that I got was really life-changing, and I wish that it would be available for anybody.”

Imagine a future when more and more refugees around the world can access higher education and live the lives they want. That future is possible, if each of us shows interest in this cause and supports the refugees in our communities. Supporting quality education for all is a responsibility for everyone.

The story of Aliny wraps up the “Refugees in Higher Education” series produced by UNAI. To listen to her full story in English, click here.

 We want to thank Lila Neves, volunteer at Developing Aid From People to People (DAPP) Malawi, a NGO, for her help with contacting Aliny for this series.