ATHENS—Masoud Burhani, a 30-year-old Afghan refugee, met with officials at the ministry of education here recently to join an innovative new project supporting higher education for refugees.
He and his wife Fariha Burhani, a 23-year-old midwife, and their two toddlers, were staying in a refugee camp in the port city of Skaramangas. But Burhani wanted to resume his studies in civil engineering and re-establish the normal routines of life that he and his family had lost since fleeing the Taliban in Kabul last year.
“I couldn’t continue my studies in Afghanistan because I had to make a living for my family,” Masoud Burhani said. “But now I want to go to university.”
Burhani was hoping to obtain a European Qualifications Passport for Refugees, a document that would certify his academic transcript according to European standards, list which languages he spoke and recognize his professional experience. While most higher-education institutions have their own requirements for applicants, the passport is a useful first step. (See a related article, “Norway Develops ‘Qualifications Passport’ for Refugees”).
The Council of Europe, along with the national qualification centers of Norway, Britain, Greece, and Italy, have come together for a second time to test fast-track methodology to administer the qualifications passport. The project is an effort to see if the passport, developed by Norwegian and British qualifications agencies and first tried in Norway in 2015, can be useful more broadly.
European officials recognized the right to a fair evaluation of a person’s university studies at the Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region in 1997.
But the process is expensive and time consuming because each European country’s universities have different admissions systems and different evaluation systems for those with existing degrees. Refugees often wait months or even years for educational institutions to recognize their qualifications.
The qualifications passport will be issued to refugees a few days following their interview. The passports are still relatively unknown and won’t lead to immediate entrance to universities, but they give refugees a clear account of their academic history.
“We’re speaking about qualifications that often aren’t fully documented,” said Samir Heco, project assistant at the Council of Europe. “We’re mainly focused on higher education. Our target group is applicants that have achieved at least one year of higher education. We’re not dealing with the regulated professions [like doctors] because each country has its own procedures.”
Marina Malgina of NOKUT said the program is one way of countering the malaise that overcomes many refugees as they languish in camps waiting for their asylum and immigration requests to be processed.
“Their first priority is shelter and food. But we see that, after some months, people feel that they want to contribute to their new society,” she said. “We want to help and facilitate the integration of refugees at the earliest stage.”
Among the 14 refugees to receive the qualifications passport in March was Mahmoud Alkoko, a 29-year-old Palestinian Syrian with two years of study and work experience in hotel management and tourism. Since then, he’s been helping the Council of Europe and the Greek ministry of education scout out refugees in Greece with higher-education experience.
Alkoko had been stuck in a children’s summer camp one hour from Athens for more than a year with his mother and three siblings. They’re waiting for relocation to Germany, where his father and brother were admitted in 2015, long before the Balkan route was shut. He hopes the passport will help him apply to find a job in tourism or to fulfill his dream: to study computer engineering at a German university.
“When I first heard about this paper, I thought, this is what I need,” Alkoko said. He left his transcripts behind when he fled to Lebanon from Damascus in 2011.
Outside Europe, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, the University of California at Davis, and the American University of Beirut are collaborating on a similar program called the Article 26 Backpack Project, a reference to the section in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that says education is a universal right for all people. The Backpack Project will give refugees a cloud account where they can securely store their academic transcripts, work history and other documentation and, if they choose, submit them for evaluation to assessors.
“We will be able to generate a report that could be used for higher-education admissions officers and registrars along with employment purposes, regardless of where in the world they may be relocated to,” said Annetta Stroud, associate director for training at the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers.
In the case of Masoud Burhani, the Afghan refugee in Athens, the evaluators assessed his qualifications in relation to European higher education, asking questions ranging from the number of students in his courses to the textbooks he read and the subject of his thesis. Unfortunately, while he and his wife had vocational experience, the officials couldn’t recognize the academic credits he had from his vocational school in Kabul.
“You need a bachelor’s, which means you’d need to first learn Greek and then start your studies from scratch by going through the national higher-education entrance examination,” Greek evaluator Roi Efthimiadou told Burhani.
“My priority is my education,” Burhani said. “You can always earn money. But first you have to study. No problem. I can start over again.