Edinburgh Global

Refugee Week: Community Stories

Interested in joining in Refugee Activism? There are many ways to make a difference. Read about Anna, Nula, and Hammed's journeys into Refugee Activism and their starts at the University of Edinburgh.


woman addressing protestors
by Arch White

Anna Jakubova

UoE alumni and HUS (Help Ukraine Scotland) volunteer

My name is Anna, I’m a Russian-speaking Jew from Estonia. In 2021 I graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a Master’s degree in Human Osteoarchaeology; I wrote my thesis on skeletal puberty in medieval Scotland. It is a discipline I’m passionate about and I’m deeply grateful to UoE for the chance to study it.

How did you come to take part in Refugee activism?

My activities are directly related to the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. I’m a comms officer and the manager of a displaced persons helpline with Help Ukraine Scotland (HUS). We specialise in informational and language support for Ukrainians arriving or wishing to arrive in Scotland; I co-write the HUS Ukrainian-language guide with my Ukrainian friends and fellow activists, Kostya Tolmachov (also a researcher at UoE) and Ksenia Hrihoryeva. We also do political activism, advocating for the Ukrainian cause in the Scottish political landscape.

I do not believe my personal experience is of any importance in this respect. This is work that needs to be done, and the people who need to be centred in it are Ukrainians, not me. 

Nevertheless, if it helps to add a kind of personal touch, I will say this: the work we do is deeply meaningful to me not only because of my sympathy for Ukraine and its people, but also because of my and my community's personal experience with this kind of trauma. No Eastern European Jew who grew up with the consequences of Shoah and the Jewish purges in the USSR can turn their back on Ukrainians. It is an all too familiar disaster.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to join in or start an initiative through the University?

My chief advice is to be methodical, consistent, and to keep reaching out to everyone who can conceivably be of use. If you need to speak to the principal, contact the principal directly. If you need to speak to the CEC, keep writing to them, keep calling them. Reach out to every organisation you know that supports the same cause and may benefit from collaborating with you (or vice versa).

And first and foremost, unless you're Ukrainian yourself, remember that this work is about the people you're aiming to help, not about you. Your priority number 1 is to listen to what they need and want, and to act on this. Get Ukrainian voices and organisers into your initiative.

Why do you feel Refugee Week and Refugee activism is important?

Refugee and displaced person activism is often the only thing that stands between vulnerable groups of people and lifelong trauma, needless suffering, or death. 

Without this activism, society is letting unspeakable evil be done to fellow human beings. Standing between these people and those who would harm them, supporting them in ways they need after being traumatised, is to some extent, I think, everyone's duty.

The main message I would like to impart is this: for you this is Refugee Week, for them it is a refugee life. When the weekends, they won't stop being refugees, won't stop needing support. It is better to get involved to a lesser extent but long-term than to work hard at one volunteering session and never offer help again.

crowd holding welcome banners

Nula Langmuir

STAR president in 2021/22

I am Nula! I have just graduated from my BSc Geography degree and have been the President of Student Action for Refugees (STAR) at The University of Edinburgh for the last academic year. Initially, I became involved in refugee activism through a community art project in my first year of university, in which a group of us painted a mural of the citadel of Aleppo on the shutter of a previously vandalised refugee owned bakery in Newington. Since then, I have become increasingly involved in the campaigning and fundraising side of the student-led charity and was elected president in my final year. It has been an incredible and rewarding year, and I will miss this community hugely when I leave. I aim to stay involved and present in building a more understanding and just society where refugees are welcomed and can thrive after I graduate.

What have you learned from you experience?

I have learnt and gained so much through this opportunity, and I am extremely proud of all the work we have accomplished over the past year. As a charity, we fundraised, campaigned, and volunteered with and on behalf of refugees in Edinburgh and farther afield, working with local and international organisations. This included raising money in support of the Calais Appeal and the Ukrainian Refugee Crisis through ceilidhs, clothing drives, film screenings, and art fundraisers. We also held a panel to discuss the intersectionality between the refugee crises and climate crises, volunteering with the Syrian Teenagers Tutoring and Education Programme, and created the STAR zine, a small magazine amplifying the voices of refugees in Edinburgh, and encouraging multicultural understanding through storytelling, art, music, and articles.

In addition to this work, I helped build our STAR network and worked alongside the Scottish Refugee Council and the University of Edinburgh’s Global Community Coordinator to build a strong and supportive network for refugee and asylum-seeking students at the university and an online resource for new displaced students. I have also been invited to join the Refugee and At-Risk Advisory Group, who I will be continuing to work with to address the need of longer-term approaches to providing support, sanctuary, and opportunity to the growing number of displaced scholars.

Why do you feel Refugee Week and Refugee activism is important?

Raising awareness around the challenges which refugees and asylum seekers face is hugely important and is of my biggest take aways from my experience is that it us never too late to get involved, and that even very small acts of activism and kindness can enact change. 

As this year ends, STAR Edinburgh has an exciting and incredibly capable new committee to take the charity into the next year. Again, a huge thank you to the amazing community I have worked alongside, and the organisations who worked with us to enact change.

man standing at podium giving a speech

Hammed Kayode Alabi

MS Africa and International Development & Mastercard Foundation Scholar

I am passionate about education access in underserved communities and for young people with forced migration backgrounds. Growing up in a slum myself, education became a lifeline for me to change my circumstances and that is why I have dedicated 13 years of my life working in the sector. Starting as a teacher to founding a non-profit that advocates for quality education and helping children in underserved communities develop life and 21st-century skills to working on research around education in emergency settings. My work has always revolved around education. My experience led me to complete an MSc in Africa and International Development at the University of Edinburgh where I researched the experiences of refugee learners in accessing higher education through bridging education programmes in Uganda. This also led me to my current work with Refugee Education UK (REUK), where I connect young refugees and asylum seekers to mentors for educational support such as helping them with homework from college, practicing their English, and helping them develop key life skills.

How did you come to take part in Refugee activism?

First and foremost, I do not have lived experiences of being a refugee. However, I have worked with refugees one to one through my previous work and I could see the barriers that they face in camps or even integrating into their country of settlement. So, I was piqued to know more. I wanted to deepen my knowledge about these barriers and how to advocate to change them. The university offered me the opportunity. For example, at the beginning of my second semester, I joined SolidariTee, one of the largest student organisations driving fundraising events to ensure organisations that support refugees with legal aid services can access funds - but that was not enough. I wanted to do more. So I joined the Foundation for All (FFA) project, a Mastercard Foundation (MCF) funded project that aims to prepare refugees in Uganda (Kiryandogo and Kampala) for higher education. The project is partly managed by University of Edinburgh, Makerere University, Refugee Laws Project (RLP), and the American University of Beirut. So I applied to be an intern where I co-created a mentoring programme for the refugee learners in Uganda and connected MCF scholars to the refugees to support them with their scholarship application, prepare them for the Mature Age Entry Exams in Uganda and provide further academics/personal development support.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to join in or start an initiative through the University?

I would say in the first instance, find an initiative that aligns with your purpose. Once you do that, do not be scared to send that email or send a message to the organisers or leaders of those initiatives. For me, I joined SolidariTee through a Facebook message and the rest is history. More so, if you want to start an initiative; leverage community groups within the University. The Edinburgh Innovation could offer great help and support and do not be scared to do it afraid. When you start, you will see how people who want to do the same would rally around you and support you. Also do not be scared to give a helping hand. While I was working on the FFA project, I proposed to facilitate a session on scholarships and how to help the refugee learners come up with a stronger application and I had a great experience. Similarly, I volunteered to also train them on analytical writing and how they can approach or answer essay questions. So, you can always propose an initiative when you find yourself working on a project or when you belong to a community.

Why do you feel Refugee Week and Refugee activism is important?

This is an interesting question and I think while some of it could be performative, I feel it is playing a major role in creating awareness about the challenges refugees face and putting pressure on development agencies such as the UNHCR who have the power to drive change to advocate at the upper and global level. For example, the UNHCR announced increasing the percentages of refugees to enter higher education by 15% before the end of 2030 compared to only 3% who currently have access to higher education. I think this is commendable, however, access is not enough, we need to remove the barriers that make refugees unable to thrive in higher education.

We need to increase our level of support and we need to constantly engage them to find out what they need. 

One of the recommendations I made in my findings is that the challenges refugees face are multiple (e.g., lack of financial capacity to pursue higher education) and it continues to unveil itself every day. Therefore, the need to constantly review programmes especially the bridging education/transitional programmes that promote access to higher education for refugees, gather feedback, and continue to unravel and mitigate their challenges towards accessing higher education. Again, access to education or higher education is not just enough, we need to continue our engagement, deepen our level of support and remove the barriers that disable access. With this, we can walk towards ensuring that someday, refugees will change the circumstances they have inherited, reconstruct their home country, get good jobs and pay it forward by helping other refugees. That is what real change means and that is what our activism should be geared towards.