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From Struggle to Success: The Transformative Power of Education for Displaced Students and Refugees

By guest contributor Mohammad Yasir Essar

I am an Afghan national living in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. I’m currently pursuing my Master’s in Global Health at McMaster University. But before I arrived in Canada, I had to endure a long and frustrating journey.

The fall of Afghanistan in a couple of days was one of the most horrific incidents I’ve ever seen. I never imagined I would see the demise of a nation we were deeply committed to build. As an active human rights activist and a global health advocate, I did not feel secure in my country under Taliban. On August 4, 2021, my family and I decided to flee Afghanistan owing to the country’s increasing insecurity and move to Tajikistan. Even though I was completing my Bachelor’s degree in dentistry, and was an intern at the affiliated hospital of the Kabul University of Medical Sciences, I had no choice but to quit my internship and flee with my family. It was one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made.

In Tajikistan, the safety and security conditions were much better than Afghanistan. Yet lack of access to education, health care, unemployment, and language barriers made my life challenging. My experience is not unique – most refugees around the world encounter similar obstacles. Refugees also deal with mental health issues due to war, violence and displacement, disrupted education, and lack of opportunities for growth.

Although I completed my degree coursework, I could not get my degree certificate, since my internship was not completed. I knew I would face substantial obstacles in my career without a bachelor’s degree in hand. Yet I hoped that my passion in global health and humanitarian situation would enable me to seek an opportunity to pursue my education. It took me 1.5 years to find that opportunity. I felt hopeless during this time because I was a refugee and was worried that I would not be eligible to study further or get fellowships.

Again, my struggle is not unique. There are so many conflicts, wars and humanitarian emergencies around the world today (e.g. Afghanistan, Ukraine, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Ethiopia). During every such crisis, young people like me are forcibly displaced. Our schooling, education and careers are violently disrupted.  We feel hopeless and mentally frustrated because of the dire conditions we find ourselves in. We all wish and pray that universities around the world would see our plight and open their doors for refugees. Because education brings hope. With education, we can start healing our pain and find a way to live and thrive again. There are millions of refugees who desperately want to resume their disrupted education, but this will not happen unless schools and universities find a way to accept and support them.

In my case, I was very fortunate that McMaster University had a special Students At Risk Bursary program for sponsoring and supporting forcibly displaced, including refugee, undergraduate and graduate students. The bursary supports McMaster students forcibly displaced due to armed conflict, persecution, terrorism, human rights violations, the adverse effects of climate change, natural disasters, or a combination of these factors.

When I applied to McMaster, the university worked very hard to offer me admission and a full scholarship to support my two-year degree program in global health. I was very excited to begin my training in Canada, but had to wait 6 months for my student visa to be approved. Even though it was the most unbearable period of my life, I persisted until I received approval to travel. This is another area that needs attention. Even if more universities are willing to accept forcibly displaced students, their governments must work harder to make the visa procedure simpler and straightforward for refugees, just as it is for other people. Refugees are already under a great deal of stress, and the long wait for visas only worsen their mental health.

I was thrilled to finally arrive in Canada on 28th of January this year and joined my degree program in person. I received incredible support from my program and people here. I’m grateful to be in this great country, finally pursing my dream and goals. I wish the same for all refugees everywhere, so they also get a chance to complete their education and thrive. I call on every major university around the world to create a Students At Risk program to accept forcibly displaced students. It will give a new lease of life to young people. With education we can heal, find employment give back to our families and communities, make the world a more peaceful place, and end the cycle of war and conflict.

Acknowledgement: I would like to express my gratitude to McMaster University and McMaster Students At Risk Bursary (SARB) for supporting me. I’m grateful to be in Canada, and be a part of this vibrant community and eager to contribute to the university’s vision.

Mohammad Yasir Essar is a global health advocate from Afghanistan. He is currently pursuing his Master’s in Global Health at McMaster University. He has a strong interest in infectious diseases and humanitarian health. He’s also a passionate storyteller and an advocate for refugees. He tweets at @EssarYasir

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

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