A Sustainable Place for Inclusive Refugee Education (ASPIRE) is a participatory research initiative between the University of Nottingham (led by Professor Joanna McIntyre) and Refugee Education UK (REUK). This place-based research study aims to understand existing formal and informal education provision in two English cities – Oxford and Nottingham – from the perspective of young refugees and those who support them in local communities.

This blog is written by Semhar Kesete, a member of  the research study’s Experts by Lived Experience steering group – a group of young people with lived experience of navigating the education system as refugees who advised the research study.

“I believe education should be prioritised for all refugee and asylum-seeking young people because it will equip them with skills required to integrate into life in a new culture and give them the opportunity to pursue their dreams”

I have been living in Nottingham for over three years now. It is a very diverse city where you can meet people from all over the world. I like that it is relatively quiet, and you can enjoy the fresh air and open space. I love Nottingham during the holiday season, especially at Christmas, when the city is lit up with beautiful decorations and lights. Another thing I like about Nottingham is that you can find shops in every corner of the city, so you don’t have to travel far to go shopping. Through this blog, I would like to talk about my experience in education as a refugee in the UK, and what I think should change to make sustainable and inclusive education a reality for students like me.

My time at NEST

I was able to get into education shortly after moving to Nottingham through Refugee Forum. They sent me to a school called NEST (Nottingham Education Sanctuary Team) which is specifically for students like me, who are asylum seekers and refugees. I really enjoyed my time at NEST- it helped me learn about new cultures and hear different people’s experiences. It was a safe space for me, and I didn’t feel embarrassed or worried about communicating with the people around me when I first started school because everyone had similar challenges.

The teachers worked really hard to try and understand what our needs were and provide necessary support. This helped build my confidence, and my English skills improved as well. We also did fun activities like potluck lunches where we got to enjoy food from different cultures and learn about different traditions and practices. When I first started school at Nottingham, I found it really challenging because of my English skills and because it was a whole new education system for me. At NEST, I gained skills and knowledge that helped me navigate these challenges. In addition to improving my language skills, I learned about the importance of teamwork, kindness and respecting different cultures.

Pursuing GCSEs

After completing my education at NEST, I wanted to pursue my GCSEs, and here too I faced some challenges. I was not allowed to take more than two GCSE courses at a time, but I needed five GCSE courses to complete my A levels. I was able to complete one course at NEST and chose to do the additional two courses on my own, which put a lot of pressure on me as I had to focus on my schoolwork as well as my self-study subjects. I’m really proud that I was able to manage the increased workload and work towards where I want to be. I am currently in college doing my A Levels, and this is a really great opportunity for me. I believe that my education is helping me achieve my dreams for the future.

What I think needs to change

When I think about what needs to change for newly arriving refugee and asylum-seeking students entering education in the UK, I would say that there should be more dedicated schools and colleges for students like us. Being immediately placed in classrooms with native speakers of English can damage a young person’s confidence and make them feel like they don’t belong there. This puts a lot of mental and emotional pressure on young people, and they do not perform well in school. It is better if they have the opportunity to learn English, understand the culture and education system better, and are then placed into mainstream schools.

I also think there should be a website that gives information on schools or colleges that are available to newly arriving refugee and asylum-seeking students with details on how to apply to these places. This should be made available in languages commonly spoken by refugee families, so they can access the information.

A concluding thought

Personally, I have gained so much from getting an education. I have learned skills and knowledge that will help me fulfil my dreams for my future. Therefore, I believe education should be prioritised for all refugee and asylum-seeking young people because it will equip them with skills required to integrate into life in a new culture and give them the opportunity to pursue their dreams.