“These are my thoughts and prayers”says Jules, smiling as she points to a wall of hand-drawn notes and quotes in her cozy studio a short walk from the Piazza della Signoria in the heart of Florence. “I write whatever inspires me, it helps me stay focused. »
When Jules, then a Congolese refugee living in Ethiopia, learned he had been accepted to a master’s degree in natural resource management at the University of Florence, he Googled information about the city. Now, after more than a year in the program, he can confirm that his first impression of the beautiful and welcoming city was correct. “My faculty is really very inclusive. So many other international students from all over the world are studying with me, I have learned as much from them as from the courses themselves.”he confides.
“My teachers are amazing people who have supported me beyond my expectations; they became like family. »
Just a few months after his birth in the Democratic Republic of Congo, both of Jules’ parents were killed in an ethnic conflict, and he was taken in by his aunt’s family in Goma, North Kivu. Conflicts in the area continued to escalate, and the family lived under the constant threat of violence. “You get used to this life, but there comes a day when you say to yourself, ‘I’m not going to wait to die here,’ and so we left”He says.
After a complicated journey, he and his family arrived in Ethiopia where they were registered as refugees and placed in the Sherkole refugee camp. “In the camp, they measured salt in a small glass; there was no sugar, nothing, we learned to make meals using our imaginations, but I was happier than if I had a big meal in the Congo. At least I could sleep peacefully – there was peace, and I was safe”he recalls.
Only after spending some time in the camp could Jules begin to think about his future. He was afraid that as a refugee he would never be able to continue his education. “I often saw recent graduates [de l’université] return to camp, maybe two or three people a year. They were respected members of the community, everyone looked up to them and looked to them for advice. And I knew that was what I wanted.”he continues.
Thanks to her determination and a scholarship from the DAFI program, Jules was able to enroll at Gambella University, Ethiopia a few years later. There, he became interested in agriculture, especially small-scale farming and fishing, which is practiced by the local community. He watched them struggle through periods of drought, which grew longer and more severe over the years. “Waiting for the rain to return seemed like the only thing to do, but I thought that with new knowledge and better technology, these communities could approach dry periods differently, to be self-sufficient throughout the year.” »
When he heard about the University Corridors for Refugees (UNICORE) program from one of his friends, he applied in disbelief. “The chances of me being selected for one of the scholarships offered were so, so slim”he recalls. “When I got the email from the University of Florence…I was speechless, I was just overwhelmed with happiness. »
UNICORE aims to increase opportunities for refugees living in Ethiopia to pursue higher education in Italy through a partnership between Italian universities and UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. This project is part of UNHCR’s wider goal of creating safe routes so that refugees can realize their dreams of a better future without having to risk their lives on dangerous journeys.
“Refugees need opportunities like this. »
Only 5% of refugees manage to enter higher education, compared to an average of 39% in the general population. Together with its partners, UNHCR aims to ensure that 15% of refugees have access to higher education by 2030.
Having started with a pilot phase in 2019, the UNICORE project has since grown to offer a total of 70 scholarships at 28 universities across the country. In 2021, 45 refugees received scholarships to attend a course in Italy.
Jules is expected to graduate this summer. He plans to return to his family and use his new skills to help refugees and local people survive without outside aid, even as the weather becomes drier and more unpredictable. “Refugees need opportunities like this”he says of his scholarship.
“The more skills refugees have, the more they can support themselves. They need knowledge to be heard, to be independent, and also to be able to dream again. »
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