Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Jonatane’s experience of being a refugee student

“While most of my friends from school started their degrees I had to wait…”
Jonatane Bidiaka Budiaki (LLB, LLM, University of Kent) describes the obstacles faced by asylum-seeking students when accessing higher education and the importance of finally being able to study at university.

Jonatane Bidiaka Budiaki

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I arrived in the UK as a teenager together with my family. We had to flee the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) due to the political activities of my father. While growing up in the DRC I witnessed many injustices.

I dreamed about the rule of law and how it can protect the innocent and punish the guilty. That’s why I wanted to become a lawyer.

I was lucky to be offered a place to study law at the University of Kent, even though my claim for asylum had not yet been decided. However the university said that I had to pay “international student fees”. I could not afford this.

My solicitor said I should wait until a decision in my asylum case had been made and then go to university. So while most of my friends from school started their degrees I had to wait.

This was particularly bitter for me because it turned out that I had already been granted refugee status before the start of the academic year – I just didn’t know it. The Home Office told my solicitor about their decision only four months after they granted me asylum.

To my dismay the university insisted that I had been offered a place as an “international student” and had to pay international students fees even though I now had refugee status. It took me nearly nine months to convince them to let me pay “home student fees”. I had great support and many advocates, which kept me going and in the end the university agreed.

I finally started my law degree in 2003 and paid the same fees as my UK course mates.

Looking back now I have many good memories of my university days. I finished my first year with a first, which felt great. I learned so much – about the law and beyond. My degree also gave me a new perspective on my future: I decided that rather than becoming a barrister I wanted to pursue a career in international development and help those suffering from conflict, especially in my native continent Africa.

One of my favourite memories of university is attending my graduation ceremony and seeing how proud my father was of my achievements. I have since obtained a Masters degree in International Law with International Relations and have worked with a number of organisations in the UK and in South Africa. I am also now a British citizen.

Message to STAR members

I think that UK universities should adopt equal access policies, including classifying asylum seeking students as “home students” for fee purposes.

I hope that all of you will get involved with the Equal Access campaign. You are in a perfect position to bring about this much needed change. You are an important voice at the universities that need to change their policies and practices to allow equal access to people like me.

You also understand what it is like to want to study. Students who are seeking asylum want to study for the same reasons as you do. They also want to study to find their dignity and self-respect again, which has been crushed by persecution in their home countries and often by the asylum system in the UK, too. Essentially we all want the same: to do well in our studies and build a good life for ourselves and others around us.

Jonatane’s friend Dorcas Adenigbagbe (24) says:

Jonatane and I met at Kent University in our first year. We became close friends and have remained close ever since. We also lived together in our 2nd and 3rd year. By knowing Jo, I was able to enjoy my time at university. We did almost everything together and she always gave me very helpful advice on a number of issues. I support STAR’s campaign to classify asylum seekers as home students for fee purposes.

Equal Access campaign

People seeking asylum are not allowed to work in the UK. They cannot access student loans and are not eligible for most grants. Yet they may live in the UK for many months or years with no decision on their claim.

To ensure asylum seekers have equal access to higher education universities should allow them to pay ‘home’ tution fees.

STAR’s Equal Access campaign

Join STAR’s Equal Access campaign and lobby your university to allow more people like Jonatane to continue their education.

Posted by STAR team on 11/11/2009 at 11:19 AM