Awaiting Asylum in France, Iraqi Student’s Doctoral Plans Are On Hold
This article is one in a series of profiles of young refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people and their efforts to get education and employment.
PARIS—Ibrahim has traveled far and wide in pursuit of an education.
The Iraqi, who asked to remain anonymous, earned a bachelor’s degree in marine navigation and shipping at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport in Egypt. He followed his father and brother into the shipping business, but he saved his wages from his navigator’s job so that he could enroll in a master’s program in energy management at the University of Nicosia in Cyprus. Then he received a scholarship to finish his studies with a semester of study at the ESC Rennes School of Business in France.
With violence and instability increasing in Iraq, Ibrahim applied for asylum in France when he earned his master’s last fall. He wants to pursue a PhD in energy management, but he’s still waiting for an answer to his asylum request.
Now he’s stuck.
Ibrahim, who is 26, will need to learn French in order to study for an advanced degree. But he won’t receive support for language study from the French government until after he is granted asylum, so he can’t easily apply to a doctoral program. He is now living as a skilled seaman without a job in Rennes.
“My specialty should be needed,” said Ibrahim. “But now I am doing my best to get a scholarship. It is a bitter reality. All of my colleagues are captains now, and I am here, just waiting. We have no future.”
More than 75,000 people requested asylum in France in 2015 amid the massive wave of refugees and migrants that have flowed into Europe in recent years, according to European Union data. The French government has not disclosed how many of them are students who have received safe harbor but have now fallen into limbo like Ibrahim.
Still, initiatives to welcome student refugees have multiplied in France in the last year.
Last May, Thierry Mandon, state secretary at France’s ministry of higher education, pledged to facilitate asylum procedures and find funding to help refugees attend French universities.
Many volunteers have been trying to make the country friendlier to refugees. A popular group, Singa France, has been pairing French citizens with migrants to encourage interaction and communication. The organization offers cooking and language courses, outings to concerts and other events, and socializing, with the aim of demonstrating how to integrate into French culture. In February, the group launched a platform that has helped thousands of refugees find people willing to host them in their homes.
“There are always negative images of refugees,” said Alice Barbe, 28, who co-founded Singa four years ago. “A refugee is a person. He or she is a friend, an artist, a doctor. We shouldn’t be talking about taking in all the misery of the world. Rather, we should talk about the wealth we are taking in.”
Ibrahim has benefited from these sentiments.
When he took his CV to the Rennes International Center for the Study of French as a Foreign Language, the dean offered him a chance to study at the university’s language institute for six months, tuition-free.
When he moved out of the dormitory after finishing his master’s program, the government told him he would have to find his own accommodations. As an asylum seeker, Al Ibrahim receives a €330 monthly allowance from the French government, but he spends €350 euros a month to rent a room in an apartment in Rennes with four roommates. He relies on organizations like the Red Cross, and his savings, to make ends meet.
Ibrahim now has few connections back in Iraq. His father passed away last July, while Ibrahim was still in Cyprus. He flew back for three weeks to attend the funeral. He hasn’t returned since and doesn’t expect to return anytime soon. His mother has also passed away, and his siblings now live in Turkey.
He hopes to receive an answer to his asylum application soon so that he can resume his studies and eventually return to work. But, he said, “I always have a fear that maybe they’ll send me back.”