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Defending Academic Freedom: Interview with Dr Naif Bezwan

By Guest Blogger11 April 2018

 By Miriam Matthiessen, UCL’s Cara Student Ambassador

Dr Naif Bezwan Dr Naif Bezwan is a scholar from Turkey currently at UCL as a fellow through the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara).

Founded in 1933 by Britain’s foremost academics and scientists to help refugee academics escape Nazi Germany, Cara assists those in immediate danger, those forced into exile, and many who choose to work on in their home countries despite serious risks. UCL has partnered with Cara since 2006.

Dr Naif Bezwan had been an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Mardin Artuklu in Turkey since January 2014, when one day in October 2016, he received the news that he had been indefinitely suspended from his post and all civil service by emergency decree.

This was due to an interview he had given to a Turkish newspaper, which related to core areas of his academic interest and expertise, including Turkey’s political and administrative system, accession to the European Union, and foreign policy.

In the interview, Naif stressed the danger of using military force at home and abroad to deal with the Kurdish question and democratic aspirations of citizens at large, through tackling an essentially domestic issue by military means and conducting cross-border military operations.

Only a couple of hours after its publication, he received an order from the university administration, in which his reflections were described as evidence of support for a “terrorist organisation” and “undermining national security”, and used as grounds for suspension. The dismissal was issued prior to the outcome of a disciplinary investigation.

Alleged links

Naif is one of a number of academics, teachers and civil servants from Turkey dismissed from their jobs in the aftermath of the failed coup in July 2016.

According to a UN Report, over 100,000 people were reportedly dismissed and suspended throughout Turkey from public or private sector jobs for suspected links with the coup organizers.  Over 40,000 staff were allegedly dismissed by the Ministry of Education, mostly teachers. This included some 10,000 teachers in South- East Turkey, over 90 percent of whom were serving in Kurdish-speaking municipalities.

Interview with Dr Naif Bezwan

This was not Naif’s first disciplinary investigation. The first one took place in February 2016 after he signed a ‘Petition for Peace’ together with 36 colleagues and a total of 1,128 academics, calling on the Turkish government to end military operations against its Kurdish citizens. Signatories of the petition were targeted by a campaign of abuse, violence, and death threats.

In many public speeches, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused the petitioning academics of “treason”, “support for a terrorist organization” and of threatening “national security,” which promptly resulted in numerous investigations, suspensions and dismissals.

Naif said he sees a great risk in the increasingly authoritarian regime, which governs the country “essentially through extralegal means unbounded by rule of law and the most basic principles of a democratic and accountable government.”

Finding a fellowship

Naif left the country for the UK in November 2016 – just days before the passports of all of his colleagues, subject to the same decree-law as him, were revoked.

In early 2017 he was recommended to apply for a Cara fellowship, for which he was found eligible in February.

He was granted a full fellowship at the Department of Political Science at UCL where he has been working since June 2017, doing research on Turkey’s political and administrative system as well as issues of Kurdish Conflict resolution and authoritarianism.

Coming to the UK meant having a breathing space in comparison to his colleagues who were not able to leave the country in time, and are therefore prevented not only from taking public jobs but also from seeking opportunities abroad.

For this reason, Dr. Bezwan continues his scholarly and public engagements as far as he can while in the UK. He is involved in Academics for Peace UK, and together with colleagues, has established a charitable institution, the Centre for Democracy and Peace Research, which aims to provide funding to colleagues in need back home and beyond.

In Naif’s own words: “Living in a country without concern of being exposed to harm, unjust treatment and intimidation, having the possibility of living under decent human conditions, and working in a friendly, international and inspiring academic setting, as UCL is, is of immeasurable value.

In a very critical period of my individual and professional biography, the Cara fellowship provides me with an opportunity and essential basis to continue with my life and studies in dignity and safety. The value of this support, and the importance of the institution which has provided, and continues to provide, hundreds of scholars under risk with a dignified foundation for their personal and professional life, cannot be emphasized enough.”

Ask GEO: Dr Karen Edge 

ucypsga27 March 2018

Karen is a Reader at UCL’s Institute of Education and GEO’s Pro-Vice-Provost International, alongside Professor Gudrun Moore. Here, she explains what her role entails and the value of job shares.

Tell us about your role in the GEO as Pro-Vice-Provost International (PVPI).

I job share the role of UCL’s Pro-Vice-Provost (International) with Professor Gudrun Moore, from the Institute of Child Health. Our core role is to lead and collaborate with UCL’s networks of Vice-Deans International and Regional Pro-Vice-Provosts.

We bring people together once a month for lunches to share information about what’s going on across UCL. We also serve an ambassadorial role and also act as Nicola [Brewer]’s deputy when needed.

That’s the formal part of our role – the informal role is being a bridge between the academic community and the professional services community. A lot of what we do relates to the translation of how a particular set of institutional policies will influence the academic community. I also try to make sure that we are very evidence based in our work and bring UCL research into our decision making and practice.

You’re an academic by trade – what led you to apply for the PVPI role?

I’m Canadian, I’ve worked and conducted research and consultancy for DFID [the Department for International Development], Action Aid and the British Council. I’ve worked in over 30 countries conducting research, so I’ve always had a strong commitment to working internationally. I’m also interested in what an institution can do to support academics interested in working in that way, with their partners overseas.

As a graduate student, I was hired as a consultant to help develop the international strategy for the Ontario Institute for Studies and Education at the University of Toronto, so I’d had a bit of experience in the international side. As Nicola and the GEO team were developing the Global Engagement Strategy, I had a vested interest in thinking about how it would sit within UCL and the Institute of Education. When Nicola pointed out that there was the possibility of the PVP role as a job share, it became incredibly attractive.

What are the benefits of job sharing the role?

I don’t think there are very many people who’d be willing to give up their entire academic practice to take on a role centrally. Sharing the role has meant that I could continue doing research and working with my doctoral students and serving the IOE, but also be an advocate for academics and provide a leadership function within the GEO.

Job shares are important because they open up opportunities to a range of different people. There’s great value within professional services of trying to work closely with academics. A job share, like we have, allows academics to work alongside professionals and contribute to the work. The role has allowed me to grow and develop a new sense of UCL from the GEO perspective.

What are you working on at the moment?

One of the projects I’m working on with Human Resources and other departments is developing a set of global leadership competencies, which will be a set of practices that will align very closely with UCL’s revised values and behaviours. They will signpost a core roster of skills and knowledge that faculty, staff and students should consider developing to assist them in their global working. We are planning to create a resource to show where training and development is already on offer and work to see where additional supports may be possible.

What’s your favourite part of working in the GEO?  

I think we have an amazing team. We recruit people from a lot of different backgrounds who bring different skills to the question of what we can do to support UCL staff and students in making the most of their current and future global engagements.

My most favourite part is when GEO actions make a difference to academics on the ground. That happens almost daily – whether that’s support with an MoU or making a connection in country. We’re always able to answer a question and if we can’t, we can push them towards someone who can.

Lastly, with International Women’s Day this month, could you share your top piece of career advice for women?

I think the best advice is to ask people if they’re comfortable “ordering off the menu”. One of the things I noticed moving to England was that people are less inclined to do this: when you go to a restaurant you take what’s there, and if something’s wrong you may hesitate to send it back. Globally, the approach to ordering is completely different.

So my career advice to a lot of women is to ask yourself if you’re comfortable ordering off the menu, and if something’s not right, are you willing to say it’s not right? And if something’s not as it should be, are you willing to put in the effort to make it better? I think those are the two things that can accelerate your career.

International Women’s Day: How gender equal is UCL’s student body?

ucypsga9 March 2018

On 6 February 1918, the UK’s Representation of the People Act extended the right to vote to almost all men, plus women who were over the age of 30 and able to meet minimum property qualifications. Ten months later, on 14 December 1918, 8.5 million women were able to vote for the first time.

Going back a further 40 years, in 1878, UCL became one of the first universities in England to admit women on equal terms with men.

This year, to mark these milestones in the march towards equality, UCL has been hosting a series of events and exhibitions. And here at the GEO, we thought it presented a great time to take stock of the progress we’ve made, and analyse in a little more detail just how well UCL is doing in terms of equality – as well as the higher education world more generally.

Steady increase in female students

Taking a look at the gender data graph provided by GEO’s Strategic Data Manager Alejandro Moreno and pictured below, it’s clear that UCL admits more women than men at both post- and undergraduate level.

Since 2007, the overall figure has grown steadily, moving from a 52% female-heavy student population up to 58% in the current academic year.

UCL gender data graph

While there are of course variations from faculty to faculty, the overall number of women studying at UCL is at its highest rate among postgraduate students. In 2017-18, for example, the percentage of female postgrad students is as high as 62%.

Record highs of women at university

The dominance of women at UCL is echoed across the wider UK higher education world. In 2017, record numbers of women in the UK went to university. According to a report in The Independent, the latest figures show that teenage girls are now over a third more likely to go to university than boys.

Data collected shortly before the current academic year showed that across the UK, 27.3% of all young men were expected to go to university this year, compared with 37.1 per cent of young women.

Clearly, the UK has come a long way since UCL first admitted women on equal terms with men. According to the BBC, the latest official figures show 55% of women entering higher education by the age of 30, compared with 43% of men.

Debate rages over the reasons behind this new high in the proportion of women in higher education, with everything from an exam system based on coursework to the underachievement of white working class boys suggested as factors. But taking a broad look at the higher education world indicates that the gender gap can’t simply be put down to a question of economics.

World gender data graph

In fact, more data collection from Alejandro shows that small island developing states are the most likely to see a higher proportion of women in HE (58.8%) in the world, followed by developed countries at 54.6%.

Room for progress

Of course, there is still room for progress. Recent reports show that despite the dominance of women among student bodies, there are still only 27 women vice chancellors in the UK (six in the Russell Group), and only 24% of professors are women.

In addition, as UCL’s Vice-Provost International and Gender Equality Champion Nicola Brewer commented recently in her speech, ‘In praise of difficult women’: “I’m aware that it’s not always a binary choice. And increasingly I’m trying to think about equality through a more intersectional lens.”

Echoing this sentiment and speaking following the launch of a diversity report from the Royal Society of Chemistry last month, Lindsay Harding, senior lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, noted that there’s a fundamental issue with the collection of gender data.

“Gender data has a big limitation in that it’s collected in a binary way,” she said. “Recent surveys show that 0.4% of the UK population don’t identify with binary gender. We need to look at how we gather gender data to be more inclusive.”

UCL Qatar’s collaborations shed fresh light on Doha’s rich architectural heritage

ucypsga18 December 2017

Earlier this month, UCL Qatar joined forces with various partner organisations in a series of public events exploring the city of Doha’s architectural history.

Most notably, the British Council Qatar’s fourth annual British Festival included a panel discussion and exhibition brought to the festival thanks to the ongoing partnership between UCL Qatar and Qatar University’s College of Engineering.

‘The Streets of Doha’ panel featured the winners of the Unlimited Doha Design Prize (Deena Terawi, Gizem Kahraman, Ming Teong, Can Askoy and Alex Scott-Whitby) along with special guest speakers including Ibrahim Mohamed, CEO & Chief Architect of Jaidah Group and Dr Fodil Fadli, Head of the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning at Qatar University.

An educational partnership with the British Council

The panel’s wide-ranging discussion covered the distinctive character of Doha’s architecture, the transformation of the city’s built environment and its impact on architectural identity, everyday life and public space.

Professor Rob Carter, Professorial Research Fellow and Research Lead at UCL Qatar, was in the 120-strong audience to hear the discussions take place. Speaking about the event he said, “UCL Qatar is honoured to participate in this year’s British Festival as the British Council educational partners.

“We are proud to be the first British institution in Qatar to offer high quality UK Education, and of the outstanding outcomes we’ve achieved in developing research and capacity-building in cultural heritage in this country. I’m particularly delighted to be involved in this event and exploration of Qatar’s rich urban heritage, which is often underestimated in academic circles and public debate.”

Exchange of knowledge and ideas

Along with the panel, an exhibition showcased the Doha Unlimited Design Award 2016 prize-winning team’s vision for the city. Awarded by the British Council Qatar, the competition saw UK- and Gulf-based designers take part in a week-long design residency under the theme of ‘The Open City’, with a particular focus on mobility and making Doha more open and accessible to all.

Commenting on the collaboration between the British Council and UCL Qatar, Dr. Frank Fitzpatrick, Director of the British Council Qatar, said, “Both the United Kingdom and Qatar are well-known for their remarkable architecture, and we hope to strengthen our relationship with Qatar by creating opportunities for further collaboration and the exchange of knowledge and ideas.”

Ongoing collaboration with Qatar Museum

Following the festival, Professor Carter continued the exploration of Doha’s rich architectural heritage with a lively Rob Carter lecturing in Qatarpublic lecture, ‘The History Beneath Your Feet: What Urban Excavation Can Tell Us About Historic Doha and the World.’

The lecture provided further evidence for the breadth of UCL Qatar’s collaboration with external partners. The latest milestone in the successful architectural collaboration between UCL Qatar and Qatar Museums, Carter and Dr Ferhan Sakal, Head of Archaeology Operations of Qatar Museums, shared updates on recent achievements of the partners’ Qatar Old Doha Rescue Excavation.

The excavation helps to document lives of the people of Doha, from the town’s foundations being laid in the early 19th century through to the impact of the discovery of oil in the 1950s.

Following his talk, Professor Carter said: “Together with our partners at Qatar Museums, we have made remarkable progress in uncovering news and important aspects of Qatar’s rich history, building up a detailed understanding of the country’s past.

“The rapid, exciting development of Doha now adds a real urgency to our work – and whilst a great deal has been achieved already, thanks to the level of collaboration to date, we’re enormously excited about the next phase of the project.”

UCL secures flagship training contract with Foreign and Commonwealth Office

ucypsga10 December 2017

Foreign and Commonwealth OfficeUCL has won a flagship contract to train the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s staff and diplomats around the world in economics, with specialist subject matter to include how different markets and exchange rates operate, the economics of the environment and more.

In a significant coup for the university’s Economics department, UCL will train up to 300 FCO staff a year over four years. UCL won the contract through an open competition in which it scored particularly highly on content and focus on learner needs.

Shamik Dhar, FCO Chief Economist and Head of the Diplomatic Academy Economics and Prosperity Faculty, said: “UCL won the contract by really thinking through what our diplomats need in their day jobs and are designing a course that is accessible to the whole of the FCO’s global network.”

Bespoke online courses

The bespoke courses, aimed at degree level learners, will be predominantly delivered online. They will modernise the FCO’s current economics teaching and provide FCO staff with practical insights on the markets and economies in which they are posted.

The programme has been designed to suit staff out in the field who might be studying after the working day, and includes video on demand elements. Teaching will be broken into 15 to 20 minute sections, along with live interactive webinar sessions, to ensure staff can work at their own pace.

“We will be introducing learners to cutting edge research,” said Parama Chaudhury, a principal teaching fellow at UCL. “Learners in this programme will be equipped with the knowledge of the most reliable and current research on pressing issues, and what the experts in the field are presently recommending in terms of policy.”

Specialist subject matter

The course will consist of two main parts, with one billed as Core Learning (CL) and one as Job Specific Learning (JSL). Both will be practical in nature, enabling learners to see how the course subject matter can be applied practically in both their individual roles and the markets in which they work.

The specialist subject matter will include the macroeconomic crises, economics data, regulating markets, economic growth and development and more.Image

Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office (credit: p_a_h, source: Flickr)

Why I’m proud to be a UCL student making a difference on the world stage

zchaael27 November 2017

UCL student Abdul Elmi at the One Young World summit, ColombiaGrowing up, I never imagined that at the age of 21 I would be given the opportunity to fly to Colombia to join the likes of Kofi Annan, Bob Geldof, and others to debate how we tackle world issues. Yet, a month ago I was honoured to represent not only the United Kingdom but also UCL at the ‘One Young World Summit’ in Bogotá, Colombia.

As the first generation of diaspora, born in the UK but with parents from Somalia, I feel well placed to represent the reconciled interests of both my motherland and my country of birth, and I enjoyed sharing my experiences with a similarly diverse group of people.

Championing the need for support of minority voices was one of the key messages I took from the summit. Sir Bob hailed the next generation as the key to solving global issues, while Denise Young Smith, Apple’s Vice President of diversity and inclusion, impressed the need for young people to have a role model. They certainly hit the nail on the head.

Mentoring has made a real difference to me so I was thrilled to hear these inspirational voices talk about the value this can add to someone’s life. Having access to the support of community groups such as Bright Education Centre combined with sheer dogged determination lead me to the successes I have achieved so far.

I now work as an Outreach Manager for Bright Education Centre to encourage others to achieve their aspirations, by running educational workshops and coordinating university advice days. Crucial to this communal effort is providing young people with opportunities to maximise their potential, and provide alternatives to the culture of crime prevalent in so many London boroughs.

It is equally important to harness our fortuity to help those abroad. Just recently Somalia was hit with the most fatal attack in the country’s history. A truck bomb planted in the centre of Mogadishu claimed the lives of over 350 men, women and children with hundreds seriously injured. The scale of the attack makes it one of the worst terrorist attacks in the world. Rescue workers said a definitive death toll may never be established because the intense heat generated by the blast meant that the remains of many people will never be found.

Somalis are resilient against violent extremism. But this is different. Everyone in the city has lost someone or knows someone who was injured. Some of those who died were described as the breadwinners; as a result, many families are suffering. Two weeks ago, I led a fundraiser and I made a pledge along with many other young people that evening. I pledged to not only stand with those suffering at the hands of this horrendous attack but to also raise £1000 for the cause. The amount I raise will go towards African Relief Fund, a charity on the ground helping the sufferers recover from the attack.

So please join me in my attempt to help the victims of this senseless attack. Please share the following link and donate: https://www.gofundme.com/bvxx9p-mogadishu-attack-appeal 

It’s not an easy fact to acknowledge, but the truth is that millions of people across the world are looking to us for assistance. And although some may feel like our contributions could never be as far reaching as to impact those on other continents, I demand you rethink.

This collective effort requires individuals from every age, race, ability and walk of life. I am fully aware that the capabilities of any individual is limited, but as long as we unite as one, there is no difficulty we cannot overcome.

Abdulkadir Elmi | @abdulelmi

UCL professor appointed Chair of British Hispanic Foundation

Sophie Vinter21 June 2017

UCL Professor Jim Anderson (right) has been appointed Chair of the British Hispanic Foundation at UCMA UCL professor has been appointed Reina Victoria Eugenia Chair of the British Hispanic Foundation at Complutense University of Madrid (UCM).

Professor Jim C Anderson (UCL Department of Chemistry) has a longstanding collaboration with the School of Pharmacy at UCM in Spain, where he has previously delivered a series of research lectures as well as hosting a number of its students in the UK.

The honorary position, awarded annually, was jointly created by UCM, the British Hispanic Foundation, the British Council and the King’s Group in Spain.

It promotes European collaboration by enabling a UK professor to deliver regular lectures at UCM to post-graduates and members of the public, alongside their teaching activity.

UCM students will spend three months at UCL in the autumn assisting Jim, who is the Alexander Williamson Professor of Organic Chemistry, with his research. They will investigate new ways of making single enantiomer drug molecules, which will be used to explore alternative methods of developing cutting-edge pharmaceuticals.

Professor Carlos Andradas, UCM Rector, and Fidel López Álvarez, Executive President of the British Hispanic Foundation, presented Jim with the title at a recent ceremony.

They commented on the importance of maintaining international collaboration, both for scientific and educational purposes, but also to send “a message of peace and respect for all, as a basis for the world’s future.”

Prof Andradas highlighted that thanks to the initiative, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year, UCM doctorates have access to high quality teaching and overseas study.

Jim said: “International collaborations are so important in research for widening everyone’s perspective. I am very grateful to the British Hispanic Foundation, UCM and especially Professor José Carlos Menéndez for arranging my lectures at UCM and the warmth of my reception in Spain.”

The British Hispanic Foundation is a non-profit organisation registered with the Spanish Ministry of Culture. It aims to promote cultural collaboration and understanding between Spain and the UK.

UCL graduate wins One World Media Award for China documentary

Sophie Vinter8 June 2017

UCL graduate Minmin Wu won the Student Award at the One World Media Awards for her graduation film 'Waste'UCL graduate Minmin Wu (MA Ethnographic and Documentary Film 2016), has won the 2017 Student Award at the One World Media Awards for her graduation film Waste.

Waste follows Yanin Ma, an 11-year- old girl living with leukaemia in China. Having spent the last month undergoing chemotherapy in Guangzhou City, she now wants only to go home. But Yanin’s hometown in Shantou is one of the most heavily polluted cities in the world and some believe this could be a cause of her illness.

Minmin is the second Open City Docs School MA graduate to receive the accolade, after Fernando González Mitjans’ win for his graduation film Limpiadores in 2016.

She was one of 25 who formed the second cohort of Masters students in UCL’s new MA in Ethnographic and Documentary Film. Her film exemplifies the kind of work the MA’s tutors set out to encourage – rooted in the research culture of a great university but made in the highly personal voice and cinematic vision of the filmmaker.

Minmin said: “I want to thank UCL, Open City Docs School, my tutors and my friends who helped me make this film. I made this film not just because I wanted to raise attention to environmental pollution in China but also because I had similar experiences to what the characters go through in my film. I wanted to share their feelings and story with a wider audience.”

Read the full story here.

UCL in Africa: strengthening collaborations

ucypcbu24 May 2017

Drummers welcome delegates at the first conference of the African Universities Research AllianceIn line with the Global Engagement Strategy (GES), UCL is intensifying its engagement in Africa. In April 2017, UCL colleagues conducted visits to Ghana and South Africa to strengthen existing partnerships and to facilitate the development of further avenues for collaboration with current and potential partners.

Africa Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) launch

The Pro-Vice-Provost (Africa and Middle East), Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu, travelled to Ghana to attend the inaugural African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) conference held at the University of Ghana.

ARUA was inaugurated in Dakar in March 2015, bringing together sixteen of the continent’s top institutions with a common vision to leverage their resources for greater impact, similar to the Russell Group in the UK. Under the theme ‘Research in Africa Rising’, the conference was attended by over 100 delegates and marked the official launch of ARUA.

The event also served as a platform to announce ARUA’s strategic objectives which will focus on increasing Africa’s contribution to global cutting edge research output, the number of PhD graduates working on the continent and increasing the number of African universities in the top 200 universities globally over a ten year period.

UCL was one of two non-African institutions invited to speak at the event, and Professor Uchegbu joined a panel to present on: “New Trends and Developments in Global Scientific Research and the Role of Universities.” She gave an overview of UCL’s multidisciplinary approach, particularly in light of the Global Challenges Research Fund as well as the importance of translational research.

In the margins of presentations Professor Uchegbu met with key colleagues at ARUA institutions to discuss strengths within their institutions and identify possible areas for future collaboration with UCL.

The synergies between the key challenges that ARUA seeks to address and the GES strategic drivers allow for potential bilateral collaboration between UCL and ARUA. Current priority areas for ARUA will focus on collaborative research, training and support for PhDs, capacity building for research management and research advocacy.

In terms of next steps, ARUA will pursue a number of large multi-institutional projects in both the natural sciences and social sciences/humanities under the thirteen themes they have identified to take forward collaborative research.

University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) visit

Led by Dame Nicola Brewer, Vice-Provost (International), a UCL delegation carried out a two-day visit of UKZN. The visit served as an opportunity to strengthen the partnership between the two institutions, and to evaluate potential channels for wider-collaboration and increased impact.

The delegation outlined UCL’s support for collaborating with UKZN beyond existing health-related collaborations, such as the African Health Research Institute (AHRI), and highlighted how AHRI’s aims and vision align to the GES. The inclusion of the Vice-Dean (External Relations and International) Population Health Sciences and the Director of UCL Institute of Advanced Studies enabled colleagues to explore academic collaborations within disciplines that were not previously discussed, such as Arts and Humanities and Laws.

During the visit both institutions agreed to hold a data sharing day, which would be hosted in London at UCL. This would enable UKZN colleagues to meet with UCL colleagues and to build on the initial discussions in South Africa. Held on 18 May, the event enabled UKZN colleagues to meet with UCL colleagues and facilitate discussions on potential collaborations and possible fundable research topics, accessible through funding such as GCRF.

Giving Syrian child refugees a voice through film

By Guest Blogger24 May 2017

The Refugee Film Project was founded by three UCL alumni: Aphra Evans (BA Latin American Studies), Shyam Jones (BSc Psychology) and Michael McGovern (BA European Social & Political Studies), to support Syrian child refugees.

Written by Aphra Evans 

Three UCL alumni have set up the Refugee Film Project to support Syrian refugee childrenThe Refugee Film Project teaches Syrian child refugees the art of filmmaking, and it was founded thanks to a serendipitous series of events involving three UCL alumni.

Michael McGovern works for an NGO called SB OverSeas which operates in Syria and Lebanon. Wanting to help, I volunteered as a teacher in their school in Beirut for children living in Shatila refugee camp. Soon after, I was contacted by Shyam Jones, a filmmaker who suggested we collaborate. Before long, the Refugee Film Project was born.

Shyam and I wanted to give the children a creative outlet that the school could not provide, and teach them technical skills as well as life skills such as teamwork, cooperation and leadership. By being at the helm of the project, the children built their confidence, self-esteem and sense of self-worth. Meanwhile, Shyam and I had a great time harnessing the bold personalities of the kids on film.

The Refugee Film Project helps Syrian child refugees tell their stories through filmThe children dreamt up stories and characters, had them made into scripts, picked costumes and locations, used a camera and tripod with great finesse, and then watched themselves on screen in our makeshift cinema. If nothing else, with professional equipment and a team of three adults at their beck and call they felt pretty important, and the project took them out of the camp where they could not play on the streets for the danger it presented.

Slow but steady progress

At the beginning, the children could not think of any ideas for a film. At school there were just 45 minutes a week devoted to creative endeavours (involving pencils and a piece of A4), so we had to work through a creative blockage. Film by film, the ideas multiplied. By the end, they were coming so thick and fast I had trouble writing them down.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many were analogous to the life-altering experience of being a refugee. One story was of a village that had to be re-won, another about a king being unfair to his subjects. Violence and the divide between rich and poor were recurring themes, in their ideas as much as their lives. We let them tell the tales they wanted, as we firmly believed film was a means to process their trauma.

Shatila’s got talent

One of the children supported by the Refugee Film Project films his friendsWe were lucky to work with some very gifted children. Tahani, 12, was a fantastic actor who needed no direction and had an impressive knack for remembering dialogue. Moustafa, 11, learnt his way around a camera quicker than we thought possible. For one music video, Hanadi, 15, alternated between rapping, singing and playing the oud with ease.

More important than showcasing these talents, however, was how much the kids obviously enjoyed the course. They were constantly suppressing smiles while acting (which make their films all the more enjoyable to watch), and they would turn up at school with enthusiasm at 9am on a Sunday. One of them, Khaled, 14, even said he might work with us again when he was a grown-up actor!

Far from over

Our six-week course in Lebanon was merely the project’s first iteration. We are planning to repeat it in partnership with an NGO called SAWA that works in Lebanon’s Beqaa valley, home to half a million refugees living in tents. But this venture, as our last one, is dependent on the generosity of our crowdfunders.

The odds are stacked so highly against the 2.5 million Syrian child refugees that humanitarian organisations fear they will become a ‘lost generation’. But with the right resources they still have the chance to be children. And I hope we can find the funds to continue giving them an outlet for their energy, happiness and big personalities – on the big screen.

All images courtesy of the Refugee Film Project.