Edinburgh Global

Edinburgh Alum Dajana Dzanovic shares her refugee story

This Refugee Week 2023 we are celebrating the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees and people seeking sanctuary alongside the theme of Compassion. Read Edinburgh alum Dajana's personal story of overcoming extraordinary barriers.

Dajana Dzanovic Refugee Week 2023

Dajana Dzanovic reached out to the University with this incredible account of her experience seeking asylum in the early 90's.

The University of Edinburgh played such an important role in shaping my future. Back in 1993 I found myself living on my own in Edinburgh as a newly arrived 18 year old asylum seeker having left my home country Bosnia and Herzegovina which was at war at that time. Once reasonably settled I was keen to continue my war interrupted university education. The University of Edinburgh not only offered me a place to study Physics but also supported me by giving me a 5 year scholarship via a dedicated hardship fund for Eastern European students. I graduated from Edinburgh in 2000 with an MPhys (Honours in Astronomy) and went on to complete a PhD at Durham University in 2004. I guess I am making contact to formally thank the University for your invaluable support at such a critical stage of my life and also to offer my own support in some way to the excellent work that you (continue) to do for refugees and asylum seekers.

Dajana Dzanovic

Dajana graduated in 2000 with MPhys (Honours in Astrophysics), now has dual nationality, and is a highly-skilled professional, giving back to society. Dajana is Head of Strategic Partnerships at Universities UK International and works closely with universities in the UK and internationally.

We had the privilege to interview Dajana to find out more about her story.

Dajana's story

What were your impressions of Scotland when you first arrived? 

Freezing and wet (I arrived in early February) but friendly and beautiful.  

What was the situation you were leaving? 

I left my home country of Bosnia and Herzegovina which was at war at the time. I came over to Scotland in 1993 temporarily as an au-pair but six months in realised that unfortunately, we were all in for a much longer ride, especially as all my family were still in B&H where the war intensified and the country was running out of basic supplies including food. 

What was your biggest challenge at the time?

Worrying about and not seeing my family. This was in a pre-mobile phone era so we only had contact every 3 months or so for about 1 minute as telephone lines were down and the only way they could reach me was by a pre-arranged call via a satellite. I was 18 years old at the time and it took 4 years before we saw each other in person again, though I never got to see my dad again. 

I was operating in a survival mode so mainly you don’t think about the horrors of war and just look forward and hope that everything is going to be OK. 

What brought you back to studying? 

I finished my first year of a five-year engineering degree when the war broke out and was eager to continue my interrupted studies as quickly as possible. 

What compassion did you experience and how crucial was it to you?

I think there are two things in this, both are equally important to me: 

  • Emotional support/understanding/compassion which in all honesty came mainly from a few newly acquired friends who, like me, had to leave that part of the world and whom I was lucky to meet in Edinburgh. However, I was also always grateful for the acceptance by a wider circle of people, including my Scottish friends – although they could not relate to my circumstances per-se their friendship did mean a lot. 

  • Practical support in terms of obtaining a place to study, getting the funding, support with asylum claims, and related processes. 

Was there a specific act of compassion that stands out for you?

I applied to study Physics at Edinburgh and was invited for interview by Dr Francis Barnes who was overseeing the Physics undergraduate intake in 1995. He was exceptionally kind and friendly when we met, he first asked me about myself, then asked a few science-y things and after a 20-30mins chat said that he’d be happy to offer me a place. He also picked up the ‘Fundamentals of Physics’ book from his office shelf and gifted it to me - just incredible! I was then able to focus on securing funding for my studies from the university but it was Dr Barnes who opened the first door for me.  

How was the experience life-changing? 

It enabled me to restart my life, until then I had been on a three-year pause, patiently waiting and hoping. I was always a very eager student, keen to learn and use knowledge as a platform for my future life. So, I am grateful and very happy to say that the experience has enabled me to achieve exactly that – complete a degree in a subject that I loved, then complete a PhD at Durham University, and then start a professional career in international research development and partnership which I very much enjoy. 

What memories of friendships do you recall? 

It was just fun from there on, I was lucky to make friends with like-minded fellow students who accepted me for who I was (though I didn’t tend to talk about the war much in those days). I loved our astronomy gang and our lecturers, there was something very special about being based in the Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill. 

What impact do you feel providing refuge/sanctuary has in the UK? 

It gives people an opportunity to either start or re-start their life and their aspirations.

What role should universities play in providing refuge/sanctuary? 

Universities should provide sanctuary opportunities and support to those who are seeking to start or continue their studies or their professional careers in academia.  

Which positive impacts on UK society made by refugees and displaced people stand out to you?  

  • Cultural impacts – learning from each other is always mutually beneficial and enriching. 

  • Professional – UK benefits from our talent (whatever shape the talent takes). 

  • Areas such as sports, arts, and volunteering - on the local, regional, national, and possibly even international level. 

Simple Acts

Refugee Week's Simple Acts are everyday actions we can all do to stand with refugees and make new connections in our communities.

Simple Acts - Refugee Week Website

Could you recommend a Simple Act? 

Watch a film - An English film by Michael Winterbottom 'Welcome to Sarajevo'. Or 'In the Land of Blood and Honey' by Angelina Jolie (I still haven’t had the courage to watch this one).

Welcome to Sarajevo - IMDB

In the Land of Blood and Honey - IMDB


The theme of Refugee Week 2023 is Compassion: How can we embody compassion? 

Make people feel like they are worthy, that someone cares, that they are part of something, that they belong. 


Thank you, Dajana, for sharing your Edinburgh alum story of overcoming extraordinary barriers.


Refugee Week events

Join us during Refugee Week events; watch a film, join a discussion, appreciate art, literature, community, and more.

Refugee Week 2023

Read our community stories from displaced scholars and academics

This Refugee Week 2023 we are celebrating the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees, as well as those who have been displaced alongside the theme of Compassion.

At-risk academic, Salim, share his personal story of huge disruption in his academic career, and finding his way in Scotland.

Salim's story

The University of Edinburgh has been an active member of the Council for At Risk Academics (Cara), since its foundation in 1933. The Council for At-Risk Academics helps academics in immediate danger, those forced into exile, and many who choose to remain in their home countries despite the serious risks they face.

Council for At Risk Academics

Amanullah Ahmadzai and his family were forced to leave their home in Afghanistan in May 2022. Since then, Amanullah but has been able to continue in his academic profession as a Research Fellow at the Edinburgh Law School. 

Amanullah's story

The University of Edinburgh has long been committed to its role as a University of Sanctuary, working in partnership with the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) to help protect vulnerable scholars and refugees. Here, we look at the role the University played in supporting renowned Viennese composer, Hans Gál, after fleeing from Nazi occupied Austria.

Hans Gál's story

Find out more

Refugee Week website  

Refugee Week 2022 (Community Stories)

Refugee Week 2021

Refugee Week 2020

Refugee Week 2019