Edinburgh Global

Nadin Akta: Building Community in Edinburgh

Education Beyond Borders Programme Manager, Nadin Akta, shares her experience as a British-Syrian, finding a new home in Edinburgh and now supporting others like her into education.

Profile banner of Nadin Akta
Nadin Akta, Education Beyond Borders Manager, University of Edinburgh

A new beginning

Nadin arrived in Edinburgh in 2008 with her husband, who was pursuing a PhD. Initially, they planned to stay for a few years, with hopes of returning to Syria to establish their family. However, as the war in Syria began, their plans to move back home were delayed indefinitely. As they waited year after year for the war to end, and with the birth of their two children, they eventually decided to settle down in Edinburgh.

Reflecting on her arrival, Nadin remembers, “It was so cold, both literally and socially. The community support and the number of people from Arab countries here were not the same as they are today. I’m so happy, proud, and grateful for the people who are coming over now, as things are so different.”

Building relationships and finding support were significant challenges that Nadin faced. “Maybe this was because I was coming here with the mindset that I would be going back soon. For the first two or three years, I was waiting. I thought the move was temporary, so I was focussing on the future, and didn’t feel settled.”

Cultural identity and integration

Nadin is curious about the question of identity, in particular how it pertains to her children as they are both part Syrian, part Scottish. “I ask them how they describe themselves. My son feels more Syrian in the first instance. I think this is because at home, we speak Arabic, eat traditional food, and have many Syrian friends. But they also feel Scottish. It’s so nice—they feel connected to their Scottish friends and school here.”

She reflects on the complexities of building relationships in a new culture. “The more different you are, the harder it is. Humans have many layers of identity. For example, I am a woman, I share this with others. Then I am Syrian, Muslim, I wear a headscarf—these are all extra layers.”

Language and cultural barriers often added to the struggle. “The language is difficult, but so is the culture of the language itself. You always feel you are on the defence, explaining why you wear certain things or don’t eat certain foods. People think, ‘oh, you have been here so long and you’re not eating this or doing that, so you mustn’t be integrated.’ Just because I live here doesn’t mean I have to completely take off my identity. This is why I struggle with the word ‘integration’ because sometimes it feels unidirectional – in all relationships it’s two ways, we walk together and meet together.”

Pursuing education and helping others

Nadin decided to pursue her master's degree at Edinburgh Napier University in 2014. She chose a degree in Intercultural Business Communication, driven by her interest in the relationships between people, companies, and countries. This also allowed her to meet more people, understand the Scottish education system, and access work.

Seeing the difficulties faced by Syrians, Nadin got involved in various community initiatives. She volunteered with an organisation offering wellbeing activities for women and this inspired her dissertation on culture and language barriers for ethnic minority women in the UK. This involvement deepened her connection with the community.

Nadin witnessed the emotional arrival of new Syrian families to Scotland in 2016. She reached out to Edinburgh Council and charities like The Welcoming, initiating projects to support newcomers. One of her significant contributions was the Women’s Café, a space where Syrian women could meet and chat. “At first, we just cried together. To meet someone who looks like you and has been through similar things - you don’t feel so alone”.

Nadin also started a tutoring scheme called STTEPS (Syrian Teenage Tutoring and Education Programme), matching university students with Syrian teenagers. STTEPS aims to bridge the educational gap between refugee children and their Scottish peers, created as a result of them missing out on many years of education due to war, and as they now face the challenge of learning in their non-native language. “There is an educational role but also a social element to this. It helped Syrian teenagers in the city meet and also many developed relationships with Edinburgh University students too, who could help these teenagers with any questions they had about life in Scotland”

Syrian Futures

Nadin started officially working for the University of Edinburgh in 2018 as the Outreach and Projects Coordinator for the Alwaleed Centre. Her role here involved organising school visits, conferences, and workshops focused on Islam. While in this role, she realised that there was a need to put all the work she and others had done in one place, where people could easily access this support. Thus, she founded Syrian Futures, a project focused on education, employment and general development of Syrian Refugees. Through University open days, peer matching and translating services they helped Syrians feel less isolated and more integrated into their new communities.

A proud project for Nadin was the five short films she and other Syrian teenagers created alongside Media Education. “These films talked about these children’s journeys and dreams and were screened in high schools so children could understand the challenges of refugees coming over”

Education Beyond Borders: a vision for systematic support

Nadin is currently Manager of Education Beyond Borders (EBB), a program that provides funding, support, and community-led initiatives to ensure continued access to education for displaced scholars. Her involvement in Education Beyond Borders highlights her dedication to improving support systems for Refugees. “I’ve always wanted to give more. I don’t want people to go through what I went through before settling down. It took me ages to learn and know things here, and I don’t want others to face the same struggles. I want more systematic support for these people at the University.”

When asked why her work at EBB is so important to her, “There is a collective passion in the team, everyone wants to work hard so we can help people.” Nadin’s hard work paid off when she helped secure scholarships for refugees and displaced students. “When we got the scholarships, it was the best day ever for me. Refugees are often told they either need to have the work experience or the equivalent educational qualifications to have access to work, but to get that experience you need the qualifications! That’s why these scholarships are needed.”

Nadin Akta’s journey from Syria to Edinburgh is a testament to resilience, community spirit, and the importance of creating inclusive environments where everyone can thrive.

I believe these scholarships are life changing for their futures, lives and career. They are so important professionally and mentally which will raise their confidence, and self esteem. This will motivate them to study and work hard.

Nadin AktaEducation Beyond Borders Programme Manager

Discover more

Syrian Futures

Syrian Teenage Tutoring and Education Programme

Education Beyond Borders