College in U.S. no easy road for refugees

This article ran in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on Wednesday, December 12.

By Kristin Palpini

SOUTH HADLEY - Sadiqa Basiri fled Afghanistan in 1985 to escape the violence of the Russian-Afghan war.

Amila Merdzanovic escaped from Bosnia in 1995 during an era of genocide.

Senia Bachir-Abderahman was born in the Algerian refugee camp that her family crossed a desert to reach in 1975 in an effort to protect themselves from the Moroccan invasion of their native West Sahara.

Now, all are Mount Holyoke College students and joined Tuesday night to share their stories at a college-hosted forum. Despite their hardships, all three closed their addresses with similar words of wisdom and hope.

"There are many challenges, but we have hope," said Basiri, who returned to Afghanistan from a refugee settlement in Pakistan in early 2000. "Nothing is impossible."

The Mount Holyoke students are succeeding academically where a number of refugees have failed. Anecdotal evidence illuminates a hard, sometimes insurmountable road to graduation.

For example, out of an initial group of 30 Sudanese refugees who came to the United States with college aspirations, four graduated from the University of Vermont in 2006, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

Firm data on refugee graduation rates is not available. Agencies that coordinate relocation efforts track refugee activities for six to eight months after they are settled. The tuition and fees, a language barrier and, at times, a previous lack of education can all hamper college success.

"We get requests all the time from local schools who have Somali refugees or other refugees who speak other languages, for students who can speak those languages and are willing to tutor them," said Donna C. Van Handle, dean of international students. "It can be difficult for them."

At Mount Holyoke College, Van Handle said language, cost and education are not usually obstacles to refugee success. International students who attend the college must speak English and have the educational qualifications to be accepted.

The college assists students with financial need. Bachir-Abderahman and Basiri, for example, are attending Mount Holyoke on full scholarships.

Once students arrive, they can utilize services provided by the international students program. Help obtaining visas, Massachusetts identification, filing taxes and buying warm winter clothes are among the services offered.

The college also operates a host family program in which international students are paired with area families who occasionally invite students to dinner and show them around town.

Van Handle said Mount Holyoke College does not specifically seek refugee students, but through the college's mission of providing women around the world with a sound education, the college does occasionally educate refugees. Mount Holyoke is also a participant in the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, a program that identifies promising Afghani women and sends them to college in America. Their host schools usually pay for the student's tuition and fees. Basiri was admitted to Mount Holyoke College through the program.

"Purposeful engagement with the world is part of our college mission, that and helping women," Van Handle said. "We try to reach women across the world."

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