Edinburgh Global

Refugee week 2021

The University held a series of events during Refugee Week (14-20 June) to showcase Edinburgh’s support of refugee projects, centring around World Refugee Day on 20 June.

These online activities offered a potent and timely reminder that for many people the security, familiarity and sanctuary of home can be taken by circumstances beyond their control. This vulnerability is a reality made even more tangible by the need for shelter we have universally shared during the pandemic.

The events celebrate the contributions that refugees make to society, as well as creating the opportunity for people to meet with others from different backgrounds and learn about other cultures. They offer a platform for these diverse voices to be heard.

Empowering refugee voices

One voice sharing their story is the new University Rector, Debora Kayembe. Her appointment to the role marks several key milestones for Edinburgh: She is both the first person of colour and the first former refugee to hold the position; her history actively supporting and representing refugee minorities as a lawyer in Scotland makes her uniquely aware of the progress we have made and the work that remains:

Every year we celebrate refugee week; it is an opportunity to celebrate refugees’ contributions to our land as well as reflecting on the condition of refugees around the world. 

This year the university of Edinburgh had a particular way to honour refugees: by appointing, for the first time, a first person of colour and former refugee as Rector. I felt deeply honoured by the appointment. 

However, electing a former refugee as Rector does not mean that the conditions for refugees have improved in the land; refugees are still facing many challenges in housing, health care, education and sadly racism.

Freedom of expression has been used as an instrument to prioritise one race to another, one gender against another; most of all it is used to brand refugees as the lowest of our society; we shall learn to respect each other regardless where we came from or where we are born; we are all from the same race, the Human race. I would like to stress that refugees are welcome at the University of Edinburgh.

Debora KayembeUniversity Rector

Debora used her time as a guest on the Much Language Such Talk podcast to talk about World Refugee Day:

Listen to the podcast

This year our events for Refugee Week were an online showcase of storytelling, art, resources and contemplation designed to increase to raise awareness of the refugee experience in the UK and promote conversation around the subject.

Due to their digital nature, these events will remain available as an online resource.

Refugee Week 2021 events

illustration from the Graphic Novel 'May God Bless the Hand that Works.'
From the Graphic Novel 'May God Bless the Hand that Works' Written by: Mackenzie Klema and Ann-Christin Zuntz Illustrations by Sophia Neilson

Building a culture of support

Refugee week is an important annual snapshot of a continual and widespread effort to tackle the challenges faced by refugees in our community. The University of Edinburgh is proud to provide sanctuary for academics and young people and was the first UK University to be awarded University of Sanctuary status in June 2017 – a status that has been renewed for 2021.

The University renews its status as a University of Sanctuary

Syrian Teenager Tutoring & Educational Programme (STTEPS)

STTEPS is a programme is a tutoring initiative and the first of its kind in the UK. Launched by the University, represented by the Chaplaincy in co-operation with University student tutors and Dr Amer Masri from the Syrian Community in Edinburgh it is aimed at supporting teenage Syrian refugees in their school subjects. The tutoring scheme’s goals are to help newly arrived Syrian teenagers with their English language skills and with education in other subjects, as well as social integration.

Read about the STTEPS programme


The University is a founding member of The Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara). The organisation provides urgently needed help to academics in immediate danger, those forced into exile, and many who choose to work on in their home countries despite serious risk. Cara works with a network of 120 UK universities to host Cara Fellows for PhD or postdoc placements and to deliver workshops to displaced academics in surrounding regions.

Learn about our work with Cara

Scholars at Risk Network (SAR)

Under this initiative, students research the cases of wrongfully detailed scholars and students facing unjust restrictions, prosecution or imprisonment due to their academic work and create an advocacy campaign. Students are provided with an opportunity to develop human rights research and advocacy skills through direct engagement on behalf of threatened members of the global higher education community.

SAR will assist academic staff and students to create an opportunity that fits their curricular needs and interests. These Seminars can be conducted as small-group seminars, independent studies or supervised internships – and other institutions have organised these as for-credit courses and non-credit extracurricular opportunities.

Learn about the SAR network

Students As Change Agents (SAChA) and the Scottish Refugee Council

The vision of the Students as Change Agents (SAChA) project is to help address skill gaps in innovative thinking, commercial awareness, working across boundaries and project management. They aim to create a coherent, high quality, high profile framework to enable all students to benefit from experiential learning with external partners at some point during their studies. This year they partnered with the Scottish Refugee Council. Students worked collaboratively to produce a proposal addressing the challenge: How can we build a fair and welcoming Scotland for refugees and asylum seekers?

Ciara Clark-Fitzpatrick, SAChA student said: "“When I came across the SACHA programme I thought it would be an amazing opportunity to apply some of the theoretical skills and understandings I have developed throughout university in a tangible way, and to really put them into practise. As an Arabic and Social Anthropology student, I have a keen academic and compassionate interest in the topic of refugees, and have volunteered with a number of refugees in Scotland – so I chose to participate in the Scottish Refugee Council to learn more about the refugee experience in Scotland and the systems and institutions that govern it, in order to approach the question and have the opportunity to offer potentially valuable solutions to the SRC, and what a fantastic and valuable opportunity that was. From a personal perspective, the SACHA programme has allowed me to develop professional skills such as collaboration – especially virtually – and teamwork, as well as effective communication and leadership, and it has given me real-life examples and experiences that I can take forward in my professional career. This is of course in addition to the inherent problem solving skills in tackling such a huge question; breaking it down, learning how to think about it from various perspectives, and then building solutions from the root of the problem up. I approached the SACHA programme with a "get out what you get in" mindset, so the entire experience was insightful, informative and hugely empowering.”

About the Scottish Refugee Council

About Students as Change Agents

How the University of Edinburgh supports Refugees, Asylum and At-Risk Scholars

We realise there is a need for a longer-term approach to supporting the growing number of refugees and displaced persons, to ensure that these individuals can fulfil their potential through higher education. The University of Edinburgh is actively responding to this through a range of strategic projects involving the direct action of our staff and student communities.

Visit our Refugees, Asylum and At-Risk Scholar pages

Refugee Week 2021 events

The programme of virtual events for Refugee Week 2021 will remain online as a digital resource. Many of the activities were recorded and can be re-watched and shared:

Our refugee week activity