An Italian higher education initiative grants refugee in Ethiopia an opportunity to pursue their dreams.
There is only one word to describe Mohtas Anwar Modier’s current mood – overjoyed.
The 28-year-old Sudanese refugee has just arrived in Italy today to advance his education. In June, he learned he received a scholarship to study at the prestigious Luiss University in Rome for a Master’s in Digital Innovation and Sustainability, through the University Corridors for Refugees Project, UNICORE 2.0.
The initiative, promoted by 10 Italian universities, with support from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other partners, offers refugee students the opportunity to pursue their academic goals.
For Mohtas, this is a dream come true – a dream that was shaped by the encouraging words of his father: “Go back to school.”
Growing up in Sudan’s Nuba mountains, he only started attending school at the age of 10. Classes were frequently interrupted by armed attacks and gunshots – signs that the civil war was closing in on their village.
“When you heard gunshots, your concentration to study would be halved,” he says.
“Go back to school.”
He recalls how in 2004, gunmen attacked his village in South Kordofan province to steal the family’s cattle. In another incident, a neighbour’s children were abducted and in yet another, a woman was maimed after she accidentally detonated an unexploded bomb in her garden.
“All this was not normal, but we considered it as normal,” he adds.
Years on, Mohtas would recognize that it was his father’s continuous encouragement that helped him concentrate and study under such exceptional circumstances.
Buoyed by his personal mantra, ‘education is the key to unlock success,’ Mohtas’ difficult journey over the years, in Sudan and as a refugee in Ethiopia, has finally paid off.
According to a UNHCR education report ‘Coming Together for Refugee Education,’ only three per cent of refugees are enrolled in any form of tertiary education, compared to 37 per cent of their non-refugee counterparts globally.
For every student, graduating from university is a cause for celebration – but for refugees like Mohtas, it is a triumph over the odds and an inspiration to others.
He often shared his past experiences of poverty, hunger, conflict and displacement as well as survival and the determination to succeed with his students.
“I advise my students to concentrate on their studies as books can heal the broken heart and make you become somebody one day,” he says.
He recalls how after completing primary school in 2007, he was forced to drop out of secondary school just a year in, after its closure due to lack of funds.
“My father sold some cattle in the market and paid for my fees to study in another school,” he says, adding that he moved to Khartoum to live with an uncle.
But at 19, he was forced to leave for Ethiopia after he and other students from the Nuba Mountains began facing discrimination from school authorities.
Dismayed by this turn of events and unable to return home as the roads were inaccessible, he crossed the border into Ethiopia, finding shelter in Sherkole camp – one of the oldest camps in Ethiopia and home to some 10,000 refugees.
“I would go to school on an empty stomach, it was not easy to walk for two hours but I made it.”
He enrolled into a secondary school some 10 kilometres from the camp and explains how he would wake up every day at 4 am or 5 am just to reach school by 7 am.
“I would go to school on an empty stomach,” he adds. “It was not easy to walk for about two hours, but I made it.”
Such was Mohtas’ determination and perseverance to perform as a top student, that he later won a scholarship in Gambella University, studying Rural Development and Agriculture.
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After graduating in 2017, he worked as a primary school teacher for a year in Bambasi refugee camp before returning to Sherkole camp.
While all classes in the camp have been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mohtas remains pragmatic and committed to his students and his community. He found a spacious room where some of his students can take lessons in shifts, while practicing social distancing.
“Nothing can stop me from working for the community,” he says. “I try to do what I can before my departure.”
UNHCR’s education report outlines how every action counts towards giving refugees the future they deserve. To bring refugee enrolment in education at all levels up to global levels requires a combined and coordinated effort from a wide range of partners. This includes offering scholarships and other ways for refugee students to access tertiary education, and partner with universities and technical and vocational institutions in refugee-hosting countries.
“It is through higher education in third countries and initiatives like UNICORE 2.0 that life-changing opportunities have become available to young refugees like Mohtas who live and study in Ethiopia,” explains Jolanda van Dijk, the head of UNHCR’s office in Assosa.
“I would like to volunteer…and somehow repay the help that I have received from Italy.”
She adds that such projects empower refugees to be active in their academic life and to better contribute to the communities that receive them.
“Refugees have talents, values and strengths that can be further developed and improved for their benefit and their hosting communities,” she adds.
Mohtas is now looking towards a new, hopeful and unexplored chapter of his life.
“I would like to volunteer in the field of my expertise and somehow repay the help that I have received from Italy and the Italian people,” he says.
Additional reporting by Catherine Wachiaya in Nairobi, Kenya
Originally published by UNHCR on 11 September 2020