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New Afghan refugees at universities in Poland

Since late autumn 2021 some initiatives aiming at integrating persons evacuated from Afghanistan to Poland through inclusion into higher education system have taken place. The coordinating efforts also have been made creating the common Initiative for Students from Afghanistan. 

In response to the needs of the group of Afghans evacuated during summer 2021 from Afghanistan by the Polish government (around 1000 people, though the number of those still residing in Poland is much lower), non-governmental actors such as universities and CSOs looked for the opportunities to improve situation and integration of those who had capacities and were willing to study in Poland by their inclusion into the higher education system. A few initiatives have been undertaken at universities, with an important support from the Office of the Member of the European Parliament, Janina Ochojska-Okońska, in terms of networking and shaping more common and coordinated approach to the issue. The academic initiatives developed different models that can feed further implementation of the action. 

University in Opole developed an interesting practice matching educational offer with broader integration support, working not only with students but also with their families. They invited to the initiative 15 people, including 6 former students and 2 families. The support for the group includes: accommodation in dormitories (with whole floors for families), studies (tuition, social scholarship), mentoring, language courses (Polish and English), psychological help, assistance in the access to medical care, legal consultations, support in enrolment and education of children, fundraising, intercultural assistance, support in entering the labour market. Employment and family reunification are considered as new challenges to address in the future. The whole support programme is implemented by a group of committed employees (working on a voluntary basis) using available resources such as university resources (dormitories, direct opportunities support), university’s contacts to institutions, labour market, students’ engagement. 

Different approach - focusing on preparing group of selected Afghans to study in Poland – was introduced at the University of Warsaw by a group of PhD candidates and students working voluntarily. The group of around 25 people was selected on the basis of applications and interviews, checking commitment and motivation to study. The initiative is divided into nine sections that constitute responses to different needs: (1) teaching Polish - groups with English or first language used by Afghans as a language of instruction; since February 2022 also language tandems with casual conversations on topics every day; (2) teaching English; (3) vocational - offering trainings and searching for paid internships; (4) events - integration events with peers (also strengthening language skills and social networks of newcomers); (5) so called difficult matters – raising awareness about mutual stereotypes and mutual prejudices; (6) preparation for everyday life in Poland, working on a mini handbook on everyday matters; (7) introduction to higher education in Poland– offering basic information about higher education in Poland (names and map of universities and other form of higher educations, faculties, requirements, etc.), (8) donations – collecting equipment and laptops for students and (9) psychological support but more for volunteers participating in the initiative. The important issue is that currently the selected Afghans do not have a status of students, though they have access to educational offer as auditors. The aim of the initiative is to prepare them to pass the qualification for studies from next academic year, not only at University of Warsaw. 

Another 15 academic schools declared their will to enrol Afghan students to the Conference of Rectors of Academic Schools in Poland, which took a coordinating role on the side of academic offer. The need for coordination of matching process between a candidate for studies and a university was also addressed. In December 2021 the Humanosh Foundation established a secretariat whose purpose is to assess individual needs and associate people from the group of evacuated Afghans with the offer of universities. Thanks to the cooperation with other non-governmental organizations working closely with Afghans in centres for asylum seekers, Humanosh established direct contact with nearly 100 people ready to start learning (as for the end of January 2022). Humanosh has worked in multicultural team, with Afghan activist involved. The main needs of approached persons assessed and indicated by Humanosh are: accommodation - housing or any other safe space to live, since being granted refugee status means they have to leave asylum seekers centres; dedicated tutor/coordinator who can accompany and help in different areas of everyday life issues; courses or other forms of learning Polish language, but in this regard a lot depends on plans of an individual (if there is already a plan to stay or to move from Poland). 

Though efforts undertaken by students and academics to create integrating paths through studies for arriving Afghan provide new value in Poland and therefore are interesting to follow, actions under the umbrella of Initiative for Students from Afghanistan face important challenges that have to be taken into consideration: poor knowledge about Polish higher education system and offer among group of Afghans; study offers not matching their expectations; scope of activities apart from studies offered to Afghans whose preintegration and integration period in Poland was very short; formal procedures of enrolment, especially in case of people with poor education documentation due to fast evacuation; unknown and hard to predict decisions of Afghans regarding their stay in Poland; a situation of a candidate’s/student’s family that can affect their ability to study; cooperation with other institutions etc. 

Important factor for the Initiative is also the legal status of Afghans in Poland that influences their rights in the Polish higher education system. Evacuated Afghans who applied for international protection in Poland were granted refugee status - vast majority in the period of 3 months. According to the results of the NIEM research following legal and policy framework of higher education in Poland for beneficiaries of international protection, persons who have been granted refugee status or subsidiary protection in Poland have equal access to tertiary education as Polish citizens. They can study without tuition fees at universities that are free of charge for Polish citizens (most of the public universities in Poland in Polish language). This also applies to the families of people who have been granted international protection. Asylum seekers and people under humanitarian protection have also access to tertiary education in Poland. However, in their case, the decision to exempt them from tuition fees must be made by an authorized institution (e.g. the ministry of education and science, rector, director of a research institute). 

There are no data available on the number of people granted international protection in higher education, because The Ministry of Education and Science does not collect such data. The initiative described gives hope that these numbers will be increasing and that models and practices of inclusion of beneficiaries of international protection into higher education will be transferred and applied to wider groups in the future. 

Anna Górska 
NIEM's National Coalition Officer
The Migration Policy Programme
Institute of Public Affairs