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 – you 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, Aliny, Lok Darjee and Donaldo, who have sought higher education as means to make their lives better. 

Haiti, a small country in the Caribbean Sea, has suffered from political and economic instability for decades. On 12 January 2010, an earthquake of catastrophic proportions hit the country approximately 22 kilometers off its capital, Port-au-Prince. The presidential palace, several schools, hospitals, and other buildings were destroyed. It is estimated that between 220,000 and 300,000 people died from the quake. 300,000 were injured and 1.5 million were left unsheltered.

Donaldo Syllabe was 14 years old when he saw his country fall apart from the disaster.  “I will never forget that day, when I had to dig people up from under bricks in search of my family. Fortunately, my parents and siblings were safe. But many people in Haiti did not have the same luck.”  

This traumatic experience shaped Donaldo’s personality and prospects. “The tragedy made me stronger. Because of what I had witnessed, I decided to become an engineer so I can build houses, hospitals and shelters for people in need.” However, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in engineering was a very distant dream for someone like Donaldo, born and raised in an extremely poor family of six. “The only thing valuable we had was our family,” he recalls.

It was his mother who had always encouraged Donaldo and his siblings to get educated. “She believed that one day we could be successful by virtue of education.” Following her advice and his own dream of becoming an engineer, Donaldo never missed a day of school. He had planned to move on to a university, and help his family become financially better off.

Until the earthquake shattered all his initial plans into pieces.

“Right after the quake, our family sought refuge in the Dominican Republic, where my father had some networks and job opportunities. But only one week after our arrival, he was hit by a car on his way home from work and lost his leg. The new life turned out not to be a hopeful beginning of a new chapter. Our lives became a nightmare.”

Now Donaldo was suddenly responsible for supporting his family. “I went to my father’s previous workplace and asked if I could work there. They accepted me, and I started cleaning the construction sites among other tasks.” Meanwhile with his father gradually getting better and his mother working part-time, Donaldo managed to finish high school.  Donaldo’s passion to become an engineer was reinforced while working at construction sites. Around the same time, he first heard about ways to study and work in Brazil, “a relatively close country in constant development and full of opportunities.” He made up his mind to seek such opportunities. Considering the potential dangers during the trip as well as financial restrictions, his family decided to send Donaldo to Brazil alone.

At that time, Donaldo had a supervisor at work who was willing to help. He offered to buy Donaldo a flight to Ecuador. With the ticket and 500 USD in hand, he set off on the journey to Brazil. Donaldo first fled to Ecuador, then walked part of the route to Peru before crossing the boarders with Brazil by bus. He was constantly hungry, and had to sleep some nights on the street. He was once arrested for traveling without permits. After arriving in Rio Branco, a city in Brazil near the border with Peru, he still had to travel for four days to get to the city of São Paulo. At the city he was able to get in touch with NGOs that supported refugees. The journey took more than two weeks in total.  

“When I arrived in Brazil I was very naïve. I believed that all my dreams would now come true, and I could bring my family here to live with me.” Still, Donaldo was able to attend Centro Universitário Capital, a private university, to study engineering. He had studied for two semesters before having to quit for not being able to pay the tuition.

Donaldo is now working as realtor in São Paulo. “All I have dreamed is of going back to the university again, not only to be able to help my family, but also to help the black community both in Brazil and Haiti through community housing projects. Today I work as a realtor to save for my tuition, but because of the pandemic I haven’t sold a house for more than 6 months. Still I won’t give up, even when I feel that my life is stuck.”

Donaldo believes that his life Brazil could have been different, with education institutions and associated organizations around the world more committed to helping refugee students. “For lack of money and opportunities, I haven’t become an engineer yet. But it is important to keep faith. I want to call out to the institutions out there that are responsible for offering scholarships: we want to study, we want to be seen and we want to be heard as human beings.”

To listen to his full story in Spanish click here.

We want to thank Rosely Rodrigues Oliveira, from the Vozes sem Fronteiras Institute and Teresa Ribeiro, from the Popular Paulo Freire Institute, for their help with contacting Donaldo for this series.