Framing the Problem
As part of the H&M Foundation’s continued commitment to education, it partnered with Kiron Open Higher Education, a nonprofit organization that uses digital innovation to provide refugees with access to quality higher education. One of the main tenets of Kiron’s learning approach is the provision of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), which means students can study at their own pace online. One of the key obstacles to this approach, however, is providing the students with a sense of community with each other. While Kiron uses a blended learning model, which includes “offline” meetup weekends, they still need to find even more new, innovative ways to bring the community together and generate academic and cultural discussions. As part of a collaboration, the H&M Foundation and Kiron developed a targeted project, “Building a Learning Environment for Study Success (BLESS)”. The BLESS project has a multi-pronged approach: creating study groups, making design changes, and organising seminal events that students could really engage in, such as Women’s Week.
One student who benefited directly from this engagement, and even sat on the panel discussion group during Women’s Week is Wafaa. Wafaa comes from Damascus, in Syria and growing up remembers her father’s cafe to be at the centre of the hustle and bustle of Damascus. “It was very popular, everyone loved playing backgammon, drinking tea together and watching people pass by.” That all came to a halt suddenly when the war started, and Wafaa and her family fled Syria; first landing in Jordan before making it to Munich in October 2015. Like so many others, Wafaa and her family had to make the treacherous journey across Turkey and Greece, and through the Balkans and Austria, before finally landing in Germany. Wafaa says she was so tired when she arrived, she was barely able to grab a first impression, but she says she was happy. “In Munich, everyone around us was immediately put onto busses and my family and I were shifted to a camp near Dortmund. Since, my family and I spoke good English, we tried to help and translate for others at each and every step of this long and difficult journey.”
THE BLESS PROJECT
Things began to look up for Wafaa when her family started to settle into German life. She discovered Kiron, and got involved in the BLESS project. Opportunities now began to open up for her, and she could truly tap into her potential again, she recounts. “Thanks to Kiron, I met a lot of new and important people. It helped me connect. I even met the German Chancellor! When I met Angela Merkel, I immediately felt safe and I felt that this country is truly welcoming.” Wafaa says that the community was key to her success, and that she was able to gain multiple new perspectives because of the her study group, her academic peers and other mentors she met along the way. “I improved my intercultural experiences. Suddenly, I had friends from other nationalities and I learned that there is not only one plan in the world and not just one perspective. I learned that there are many catastrophes in the world – and that I am not the only one! With gaining such new perspectives and learning about others, I changed my goals, my intellect and my personality.”
Especially thanks to the multidisciplinary approach of the BLESS project, Wafaa says that she had more of the chance to gain new knowledge about other fields, which would not have been possible if she was confined to meeting people in her own academic track of Business Administration. “My friends and other students at Kiron study in different fields, this again helps us all to exchange thoughts and engage in interdisciplinary discussions – always learning more together and gaining new insights.”
Another highlight, was Wafaa’s participation in the roundtable event around the topic “The Future is Female? How can we collaborate to create change?” organised by the Kiron as part of Women’s Week. The event was held at the headquarters of the BMW Foundation Herbert-Quandt, a long-time partner of Kiron. Amongst the other distinguished participants were Tijen Onaran, Founder of Women in Digital e.V., a network to connect and support women in the digital sphere, Brigitte Zypries, the former German Minister for Economics and the first woman to hold the post, and Armaghan Naghipour, a lawyer for migration rights and the deputy chair of the intercultural Think Tank Deutsch Plus.
Now Wafaa is a fully matriculated student at the University Duisburg-Essen and she says that she has gained a new identity. “I felt as one of them – part of them – a real student. Now I made it and I can.” She credits the whole experience with her being able to “finally appreciate myself again, rebuild my self-confidence and truly start the beginning of my future.” Wafaa now dreams of being a film director and running her own production company. “In Germany, I have learned that everyone is allowed to believe and think for him- or herself and that it is possible to have a culture where everyone respects each other. But without education there is no civilization. Education is the key to change!”