Refugee support at the University of Edinburgh

The refugee crisis in Syria has gained recent headlines for the millions of displaced citizens seeking refuge across Europe. We look at the University’s efforts to assist refugees, through work with the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA), and additional scholarship pledges.

By Michal Shimonovich

Refugees seeking asylum is unfortunately not a new phenomenon - when academics from Nazi Germany sought to relocate, they turned to the newly founded Academic Assistance Council (AAC).

With help from scientists including Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger, the founder of AAC, William Beveridge, and his academic colleagues saved the lives of over two thousand academics and their families. The University of Edinburgh is proud to have been amongst the founding members. The humanitarian support they deserved, as well as the academic freedom they craved, are what the organisation now called the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) is continuing.

The requests for help CARA receives comes from at-risk academics from conflict heavy countries including Syria, Zimbabwe, Eritrea and Iraq. CARA supports staff and academics, regardless of gender, political orientation, sexual orientation or country of origin. 

Support through access

The University of Edinburgh has pledged support to CARA scholars as part of a new agreement with CARA. This includes financial and practical assistance – such as visa applications that can be more difficult as applicants also have limited documentation – and also providing a safe and supportive environment for them to flourish academically. The hope for these scholars is to return to their countries to apply their knowledge to support rebuilding at home.

There is also provision through the Edinburgh Syrian Postgraduate Scholarships, through which the University of Edinburgh will offer up to 3 postgraduate scholarships for students from Syria studying a one-year Masters degree programme in any subject offered by the University for the 2017-2018 academic session.

In addition to these activities, the University has made special scholarship provision available for five students with asylum seeker status – four undergraduates and one postgraduate.

This is in addition to unilaterally revising the fee category for all students with asylum seeker status to the home fee rate – they had previously been subject to international fees, as at many Universities in the UK, as asylum seekers had not yet met the residency requirements to be considered home/EU students.

Mohamed Kattish is one such student. Studying Chemistry with Environmental and Sustainable chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, I spoke to him about his experience in the city.

Since arriving, he has been taking advantage of the opportunities that come from living in Edinburgh, including going on runs through the Meadows and exploring the best kebab shops Leith has to offer.

He has also found time to volunteer for environmental and humanitarian causes. He told me that what he has most enjoyed is his volunteering and community experience at the Edinburgh Central Mosque – a building he loves for its mix of Arabic and Scottish architecture.

Students are also provided support through English language courses and settlement assistance. The city of Edinburgh has a welcome programme for new arrivals and resources for staff members to support new arrivals can be found through the Scottish Refugee Council.

Refugee support organisations which the University is a member of, or which represent a response by the University community:

Council for At Risk Academics (Cara)

Helping academics in immediate danger, those who have been forced into exile.

CARA Website


IE Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis

A network of colleges and universities providing scholarships for Syrian students whose education has been disrupted as a result of the war.

IE Syria Consortium Website



A student-run organisation that aims to raise awareness of refugee issues and promote integration of refugees and asylum seekers into society.

STAR Website



A student-led humanitarian support effort centred around communication and technology challenges experienced by refugees.

ELPIS Website


Edinburgh friends of MSF

A university society aiming to support the work of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) International.  

EUSA - Edinburgh friends of MSF 


Challenging times

“I love my family and I really missed them all my time in Edinburgh. This was the challenge that I always face every night when I go to bed; not to cry and stay strong.”

Mohamed Katish

Despite this support, it is important to remember that these students, because they are here as asylum seekers, are unable to seek further employment to support them through their studies. CARA scholars and other refugees and asylum seekers can work with the Scottish Refugee Council and the refugee committee in the International Student Advisory Committee at the University to seek further assistance.

There is no doubt, however, that this is a cumbersome process that puts further strain on the students.

The challenges Mohamed has gone through are unimaginable. Firstly, not being able to see his family has been trying: “I love my family and I really missed them all my time in Edinburgh. This was the challenge that I always face every night when I go to bed; not to cry and stay strong.”

He still counts himself lucky for the community he has found at the mosque, noting that “other asylum seekers … here got exploited and manipulated because there is nothing to protect their rights and they have very limited English skills.”

As they are prevented from working – but have limited financial support – the financial exploitation of these students is perhaps more likely.

It is also a detriment for these students to graduate from university with no work experience. Mohamed notes that he “never worked back home.”

The psychological challenges and financial challenges were of course a strain on Mohamed as he struggled with depression and dreamt of returning home. It is thus amazing, and telling, that he still considers this a “best case scenario.”

He is thankful for the friends and support he has received from the Mosque and for meeting his friends from around the world here at Edinburgh. He is looking forward to completing his studies, continuing to attend academic events and meeting new people.

The work goes on

The University of Edinburgh is available as an incubator for developing and protecting talent before students and staff can return to rebuild their home. Students on campus who would like to help can work with societies Student Action for Refugees (STAR) and Edinburgh Friends of MSF.

It is extremely important to continue to not only support asylum seekers and refugees at the University, but encourage more to arrive. The University is an extremely international place – over half of PhD students and taught postgraduate students are from outside the UK, in addition to over a third of undergraduate students.

When universities support and encourage the world’s most talented students, regardless of where they are from, the best research and learning is the outcome.

Michal Shimonovich is part of the Editorial Team at Edinburgh Global. When she’s not trying to scoop out the latest going-ons of the international community in Edinburgh, she’s waiting for an hour online outside Mary’s Milk Bar. Worth every minute.​