By Leila Belkacem with Kam Chohan
In 2021, the Education Collaborative for International Schools (ECIS), awarded two scholarships for two university students. One of the recipients was Leila Belkacem, a final-year Saharawi refugee student at United World College in Maastricht (UWCM), Netherlands, who was awarded full fees for the first year of her university course studying civil engineering at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Here is Leila’s story of education as a refugee and the impact of scholarship.
Living in a refugee camp
Raindrops struck our plastic UN tent, our shelter, one of the thousands of tents in the refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. Still, the burning wood, warm tea, and brown blanket I shared with my sisters kept us warm. Hopeful, my mom sat there praying for the rain to stop so it would not damage our home. To us children, the rain meant amusement, swimming in holes filled with rainwater and dancing joyously. That was all we needed to forget our struggle in a world that chose not to listen whenever we dared to speak.
Despite extreme weather conditions, lack of necessities to maintain a fully functioning life, lack of opportunities to prosper and integrate ourselves to the rest of the world, we learned to celebrate the rare occasions we found ourselves in, extend them in our imagination, and extract simple joys. This is how we learned to live and grow as a community against a wave of injustice and a mass of ignorance that the world has alienated us with.
When I was young, my mother hoped for a better education for me. I attended boarding schools in northern Algeria, a thousand kilometres away. This was the only way. I studied there from age 11. During those years, I became aware that I was a refugee in another country – an identity I refused to accept. From then on, I resolved to become the voice for our people and bring us the rights we deserve.
New educational opportunities
My hard work in the Algerian schools paid off. I received a full scholarship to UWCM where I consolidated my understanding of the complexity of the problems we faced. After overcoming a huge language barrier, I began taking initiatives and leadership roles. This included leading a project week in Prague, organising activities with orphan children, and guiding visually impaired people in Italy with Traveleyes. These experiences were a large part of my education.
I went on to start the Under the Sun project with the help of friends. The objective was to improve the living conditions of Saharawi refugees. We installed air-conditioning systems to prevent heat exhaustion in the camps, and set up cement water tanks to replace rusty steel ones. Since then, the team has expanded the project to some other schools and universities, such as UWC Dilijan and the University of Granada. They have successfully installed 10 air-conditioning systems and have built nine houses and two more water tanks. In addition, through their Instagram and Facebook pages and their website they have extended their work beyond the local level, by disseminating information about the Western Sahara conflict.
My experiences at UWCM helped me to become more knowledgeable about the multifaceted nature of problem-solving. I began representing Under the Sun in different conferences. It is challenging for refugees to stand up for their rights. I addressed this issue at the European Parliament in Brussels, and Emmaus International Movement Conference in Stockholm. I raised two major concerns to the politicians: the unwillingness of the global community to actively help us, and their silence to speak against the oppression we experience.
I recognise that huge barriers need to be overcome for Western Sahara to become independent. To make any changes towards that goal requires us to recognise how complex the problems are and how they should be dealt with from many directions. I am, however, an admirer of simplicity. For any development, I strive to find out the starting point from where changes need to begin. We refugees have the capability to build our future. We can sustain and develop ourselves if we have some level of proper infrastructure; this is where the root for other substantial changes can prosper. This insight motivated me to become a civil engineer along with my inclination towards mathematics and technical disciplines in general.
Supporting my pathway
My optimism grew when I was invited to be a keynote speaker, alongside Amar Latif, founder of Traveleyes, at the ECIS Multilingual Conference in London. Here, I received support from the conference attendees, who were willing to help in many ways. This included support for my own higher education path. Without ECIS, and Susan Stewart, chairperson of the ECIS Multilingualism Special Interest Group, it would have been impossible for me to attend university.
I was looking for someone to tell me that such a thing was possible. I recall a conversation with Susan in vivid detail. Before the call, I needed encouragement, I couldn’t find any scholarships that could make my dream come true. Susan’s optimism gave me motivation and, most importantly, hope, to think it is the most normal thing someone would do to continue their education by looking for sponsors. Susan’s support and encouragement did not stop there.
To get to the Netherlands to attend university, I had to leave Armenia. After months of trying, it was finally possible to fly to Mauritania on precisely the last day of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Susan was always there for me through those dark challenging moments. Things, however, did not go as planned due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Algerian embassy’s lack of support. A few days in Mauritania turned into five challenging months. It seemed, at this point, that things were not going to work out.
While I was trying to obtain a passport and leave Mauritania, Susan was working on finding sponsors for my education. She succeeded. ECIS would provide me with a scholarship! I am a believer that everything in life happens for a reason, and at that moment I saw this news as a sign not to give up.
Susan’s support remains ever-present. I also speak to Kam Chohan, Executive Director of ECIS, who regularly calls me to see how work is going. Thanks to them and the ECIS Scholarship, which paid for my first-year tuition fees, I am living my dream. I hope they continue making a difference in people’s lives with the scholarship, just like they did with mine. I am getting the education that I have always dreamed of. It still feels hard to believe sometimes. I love my assignments so much. It is challenging, but that is precisely what makes it enjoyable.
Looking to the future
I understand the challenges that lie ahead in achieving my goals, but that does not discourage me in the slightest. The experiences in my life so far have built within me an enormous amount of resilience. I see, in every rejection, a reason to be more resilient.
Although academically, I aim to become a civil engineer, my education needs to encompass experiences that will make me a more empathetic and charismatic leader who understands the needs of people. I aspire to become a political advocate and understand our region’s politics and its relation to the world. I believe that change must come from within society and when more people receive the education they need to prosper, this change is possible.
“We, at ECIS, are here to serve our school community. Leila was a speaker at our London conference in 2019 and meeting her was a real honour – I very much enjoyed talking with her and learning more about her journey. She also recently gave me a tour of her student room. We are very excited to see Leila’s progress and watch her future with interest. We offer several grants and scholarships.” Learn more here – Kam Chohan
Leila Belkacem is an alumna of United World College, Maastricht and currently an undergraduate at the University of Twente. Kam Chohan is Executive Director at ECIS. Connect directly with Kam on LinkedIn.