Sanctuary

We are a few days before Christmas. You don’t have to be religious to find meaning in the Christmas story – a young couple far from home and in desperate need of shelter. This perhaps makes this a good time to write about Sheffield Hallam’s decision to sign a promise to expand its support for refugees and people seeking sanctuary. The pledge, which has been promoted by City of Sanctuary and STAR (Student Action for Refugees), states Sheffield Hallam’s commitment to the UN Refugee Agency’s goal of 15 per cent of refugees worldwide having access to higher education by 2050. That would be a stretching target in any case: according to UNICEF figures, there are 26 million refugees worldwide, and over half of them are under the age of eighteen. But we know that the likelihood is that the number of refugees worldwide will rise sharply in the coming decades as human-induced climate change manifests itself in competition for depleted resources, rising sea levels and severe water stress.

Shqiperim Reka moved to Sheffield in 1999 with his parents, fleeing the consequences of war in Kosovo. He came to Sheffield Hallam as an undergraduate student of tourism management. On completion of his degree, he went on to study a masters, and then a doctorate, before joining Sheffield Business School as a lecturer in 2017. Shqiperm is generous in his comments about the support he received, as an undergraduate, post-graduate and research student; he says: “The members of staff here are incredible; they understood me and helped me get to where I am today”. I’m delighted that we provided an environment in which Shqiperim was able to thrive.

This year, two students, one from Iran and one from Zimbabwe, were successful in their applications for a Sheffield Hallam University Sanctuary scholarship. This scheme which helps asylum seeker students overcome financial barriers to education by waiving tuition fees and providing £4,000 of funding for living costs. The scholarships are jointly funded by the University and through generous donations from former students: the scholarships have been a focus for our fundraising this year, and we will be seeking further fundraising including through the staff, students and alumni running in the Sheffield Half Marathon next year. One student is studying in the faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, and the other in the faculty of Science, Technology and Arts; I had lunch during graduation fortnight with the Zimbabwean student and enjoyed getting to know her and the way she is building a community for herself in the university and the city. Both are currently seeking sanctuary in the UK and hoping that the post graduate qualifications they acquire here will help them make a greater contribution to the community which has welcomed them.

As well as providing access to higher education for refugee students, we seek to embed our commitments to the principles of sanctuary in a number of ways.   Soon after I arrived as Vice-Chancellor, the university joined the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara), a UK-wide charity which, since the early 1930s has been provided sanctuary and facilities for academics under threat around the world.   We are currently supporting two academics identified as at-risk of violence, persecution or repression in their home countries to pursue their research.

Where we can, we look to engage our UK-domiciled students in this work. At the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice, the Refugee Family Reunion Clinic gives free advice and guidance to any refugee who has sought refuge in Sheffield and is looking to reunite with family members they have been forced to leave behind. Students from the Department of Social Work have been teaching in refugee schools in the Calais refugee camp; there’s a striking video of some of our students’ work in Calais here.   Earlier this year, Hallam journalism students worked with refugee children in Lebanon, and their video account of their work is here.

We live in difficult times, in a troubled and rapidly changing world. Threats to life, livelihood and well-being are multiplying. Tom Martin, Director of the City of Sanctuary Sheffield has said about the university that “The work you do to support refugees and asylum seekers is firmly in line with our shared vision of making Sheffield a place where refugees and asylum seekers are not only welcomed, but can thrive and make positive contributions to our communities.

“Sheffield will only become a truly welcoming place for those seeking sanctuary through the ongoing support and concrete commitments of institutions like Sheffield Hallam.  At City of Sanctuary Sheffield, we look forward to continuing to work with Sheffield Hallam to make this vision of welcome a reality.”

At the end of a year where, across the nation and the world, it often seems that the bad news has outweighed the good, I’m delighted we are able to make an institutional commitment to providing sanctuary.

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