Mohammad, a refugee from Syria, is now a renowned researcher at the university and an expert in Robotic. Photo: University of Coimbra. - Photo: 2023

Integrating Refugee Students: The Model of a Portuguese University

By UN Academic Impact (UNAI)

NEW YORK. 14 July 2023 (IDN) — Some eight years ago, the flow of persons needing international protection to the European continent increased significantly, and many asylum seekers and refugees were in the typical higher education age range. In light of this situation, the University of Coimbra (UC), a member institution of the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) in Portugal, created a unique channel for students, academics, and professionals with refugee status under applicable Portuguese Law and International Law.

As tuition fees for international students were introduced in 2014, the institution launched a ‘Refugee Fund’ to provide financial support with resources from its internal budget. UC is uniquely positioned to balance targeted practices with more inclusive internationalization by integrating qualified and motivated refugees into higher education. By doing so, this Portuguese institution embraces its overall strategic objectives concerning social responsibility, hosting now 80 students of 16 nationalities.

The university works closely with non-governmental organizations, municipalities, and national institutions, which are responsible for welcoming refugees in Portugal, such as the Portuguese Refugee Council, the High Commission for Migration, the Jesuit Refugee Service, and the Global Platform for Higher Education in Emergencies. In that sense, UC contributes to strengthening not only European measures, but it is also actively supporting critical national policies. Yet, there is no shortage of challenges.

Considering the actual need to foster the integration of refugees, language is, of course, essential to academic life and inclusion into the host community. Therefore, the priority is to furnish intensive training and customized follow-up to prepare students to gain the necessary proficiency in the Portuguese language to take UC degree programs. These courses are led by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, which has more than 90 years of experience teaching the Portuguese language to international students.

For those who want to enroll in a degree course, the UC offers a foundation year to prepare them to take the necessary entrance examinations established for the first cycle of studies. In this case, students must take a program related to the academic subjects of their chosen undergraduate/integrated Master’s degree and pass the relevant final exams with the required grades to apply to the UC. Moreover, the university offers appropriate guidance and vocational counselling focused on the students’ needs.

Furthermore, Social Services Support provides psychological assistance and training regarding stress management and study methods. In the meantime, the International Relations Unit is responsible for welcoming and integrating refugee students and contacting internal and external stakeholders, including students who volunteer to help their peers. Additionally, the Unit organizes various activities, including multicultural workshops, in order to raise awareness in the academic community.

Another critical aspect of these efforts is the recognition of prior learning at the UC as a good practice that has been followed, even in the absence of diplomas. But such recognition can indeed be challenging as some refugee students may or may not be able to document their previous study achievements. For this reason, the UC created a portfolio with a set of recommendations for this process. As part of the process, interviews take place -even in the student’s mother tongue- as well as practical placements and exams.

And there are many stories of success led by dozens of refugee students, demonstrating how vital these university policies are on paper and also in a tangible way. Dania, for instance, studied the Portuguese language for three months and started the foundation year in Science and Technology at the UC in 2016. One year later, she enrolled in the Integrated Master’s in Pharmaceutical Sciences, earned a merit scholarship, graduated with honors, and started working in a pharmaceutical company shortly after.

“Safe Collaborative Robotic Manipulators” was the title of the thesis authored by Mohammad Safeea, which focused on the development of innovative robotic systems that safely share the operating space with humans, avoiding collisions. The Ph.D. thesis was bestowed with the “Best National Ph.D. Thesis in Robotics” by the Portuguese Robotics Society. Mohammad is now a renowned researcher at the Centre for Mechanical Engineering, Materials and Processes of the Faculty of Sciences and Technology at UC.

“Due to the war in Syria, I had to leave. This was my only choice to avoid the mandatory military service. My first destination was Algeria. However, I was unable to continue my higher education there. Fortunately, there was a glimmer of hope on the horizon. The former president of Portugal, Jorge Sampaio, started an initiative to assist Syrian students in crisis and enable them to continue their higher education. I applied, and my lucky day finally arrived in March 2014,” explained Mohammad.

Paperwork and visa issues hindered the process, though. “I was fortunate that I had people that persevered until they successfully secured my arrival at the university,” he commented. “The university provided me with a haven. I pursued my passion and focused on my research, which resulted in various articles and open-source software, successfully published in international journals, and presented at international conferences. In simple words, the institution changed the course of my life,” he added.

Along these lines, the University of Coimbra is also part of projects funded with support from the European Commission, such as XCELING (Towards Excellence in Applied Linguistics), with a consortium of twelve universities that developed an app to learn different languages. Another project, TEACHmi (Teacher preparation for migrant school inclusion), aims to provide practical tools, materials, and guidelines for teachers, school leaders and stakeholders, to facilitate the integration of students with migrant backgrounds.

The institution, as showcasing how the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and in particular Goal 4: Quality Education can take place, considering the needs and special circumstances of vulnerable communities and groups. [IDN-InDepthNews]

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Photo: Mohammad, a refugee from Syria, is now a renowned researcher at the university and an expert in Robotic.  Photo: University of Coimbra.

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