An Interview with the President of the SOAS Solidarity with Refugees & Displaced Society, Amira Rady
Q. Could you explain how SOAS Solidarity with Refugees & Displaced People Society came about? Was it a group of you who came together? Did you know each other before? What sparked it? Or has it been around for ages but is now gaining more attention?
A: SOAS Solidarity with Refugees and Displaced People Society. was formed in the summer of 2015 as a student initiative that raises awareness about the social and structural issues people affected by displacement face, and challenge the often misrepresentative narrative around migration. The committee consists of both undergraduate and postgraduate students from a broad range of disciplines. Around June when there was heightened media attention documenting the plight of people affected by displacement, I reached out to other students via the Student Union email and social media and had an overwhelming response of people wanted to get involved. At our freshers fair we had over 400 people to the society wanting to critically engage and show solidarity in light of the lack of political will to do so.
Q: What kind of things have you been doing as a student body?
A: We have hosted numerous panel discussions, documentary screenings and fundraisers, giving a platform to advocacy groups, academics, women’s rights groups, experts by experience and migrant rights associations as well as collaborating on an event with Entitled Magazine for their special edition on Migration. In December we hosted an evening of Arabic, Iranian, Turkish and Kurdish music that raised £1,400 for Proactiva Open Arms, a Spanish search and rescue NGO that is dedicated to saving lives off the island of Lesvos. We have established volunteering programmes with partner organisations, an English conversation club with the Red Cross Refugee Support, and mentoring schemes with Paiwand Afghan Association. We have also set up a formal donation program with Red Cross Hackney Destitution Centre where students donate clothing and household goods to destitute refugees and asylum seekers.
Our Campaigns team’s main area of advocacy is Education Beyond Borders, an initiative to make the ‘SOAS Refugee Scholarships’ inclusive and provide meaningful access to those affected by displacement. We hope to do this by highlighting the financial exclusion that people with temporary or irregular migration status face as well as expanding the scope of who is deemed eligible for these scholarships.
In collaboration with SOAS Goes to Calais and other external organisations we also co-organised the demonstration in London as part of the European March for Refugee Rights which took place in 120 cities across Europe calling for the end of carrier sanctions and to secure #SafePassage for refugees.
Q: It would be great to hear an update on the scholarship issue – what’s good about SOAS’s plans and are there any limitations or barriers to improving access to higher education?
A: Just like any new venture the scholarships are a work in progress, they are currently fee waivers and are available to people with refugee status and humanitarian protection. Myself along with our two campaigns officers – Holly Buck and Ally Rooms, the Students Union, Let Us Learn, a SOAS academic who specialises in forced migration and a 1st year student who started her degree as an asylum seeker are collaborating with the university to form a working group in an attempt to make these scholarships more inclusive and provide long term support. Through this working group we hope to broaden the scope of who is considered for the scholarships to include asylum seekers and people with leave to remain. We hope to secure funding in order to support those who are financially excluded. We recognise the need for social support throughout the duration of one’s degree so hope to set up a formal mentor who will support people throughout this process and we hope to secure these scholarships are available every year for the foreseeable future. Displacement is not a new phenomenon and it won’t be going away any time soon, this is why it is vital to demonstrate long term solidarity rather than a one off token gesture.
Q: And finally, why do you think universities are particularly well placed to offer sanctuary to asylum seekers and refugees?
A: SOAS is a unique space due to its diverse student body, its regional specialisms, and with around fifty different languages spoken on one campus, it is an inclusive and accepting space. There is a long history of welcoming refugees that spans from the students and the Students Union to the academic staff. SOAS is one of the most politically active universities in the UK with around 5 societies, including ourselves, exclusively dedicated to campaigning for the rights of refugees globally. For a university that capitalises on the research of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS should be leading the example in providing an inclusive space to people affected by displacement. Unfortunately the institution is having to catch up with in student body in this respect. Taking into consideration the centenary of the university and the colonial past in which SOAS bares, we as a society believe that the institution should be far more reflective in its practices.