Wednesday, September 20, 2017

SuperSTARS -  we’re highlighting amazing STARs of the past and their careers

We chat to Iona Hannagan Lewis from Welsh Refugee Council about her days with STAR and everything she’s been doing since – all the twists and turns of her career.

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NAME: Iona Hannagan Lewis
JOB: Researcher at Welsh Refugee Council
STAR History: Exeter STAR 2012-14 (co-founder).

Ask Iona Hannagan Lewis if she would recommend STAR to today’s students and the response is unequivocal: “I would definitely recommend STAR to them”, she says.

“I can confidently say that I would not be in the job that I am in now without that experience of campaigning for refugees (with STAR). It gave me some very practical experience.”

She got into STAR almost by accident but was a founder member of the group at her university, setting up the Exeter branch in 2012 and sticking with it through until graduation two years later.

“I had just come back from working with VSO in Nigeria and I was really keen to continue to work around issues of migration and social justice and I couldn’t really see much opportunity to do so at my university – and I thought there was a need.

“So when a fellow student said – ‘oh I’m thinking about setting up a STAR group’ – I agreed it was a good idea.”

Iona explains that STAR has been on her radar because of friends in Cardiff.

“People were always talking about the amazing STAR parties that were always happening at Cardiff with Refugee Rhythms and I realised then that it was a network of student groups.”

She had actually gone back to university “following a period of interruption” during which she trained as an English teacher. Her return to uni also coincided with a renewed interest in migrants and refugee issues which set her on a distinct clear path, working for a year as a volunteer with the Welsh Refugee Council on a new English language project.

During her time with STAR Iona helped to coordinate language classes for refugee and asylum seeking women with Refugee Support Devon.

“Teaching English in an informal context is something that I am really interested in throughout my subsequent career”, she says.

In 2015 funding became available for her role with the Welsh Refugee Council, in which she runs free English classes and supports refugees and asylum seekers into education and employment through a free mentoring service.

She also supports other organisations, including universities, colleges and employers to develop strategies to boost refugee and asylum seeker inclusion.

Looking back Iona is clear there were real tangible benefits to her time with STAR.

“All the Cardiff based universities now offer scholarships for asylum seekers and those without recourse to public funds. That has been a really great thing to have been involved with”, she says.

There was also the campaign at Exeter for equal access to education for refugees and asylum seekers. The petition to get scholarship funding got several hundred signatures – “that was what really swayed the student union and the Vice Chancellor to offer equal access scholarships.”

Her memories of STAR are, she freely admits, “really good.”

She adds: “It’s just a really great way of engaging students in refugee and asylum seeker issues and increasing that really valuable contact through English language courses, or something like refugee rhythms and gigs which both students and migrants are invited to.

“That’s what really changes people’s hearts and minds – just having that space where people can meet and actually people are all pretty similar.”

Posted by STAR team on 20/09/2017 at 01:50 PM