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Nominated by: University of South Wales

Tarek Zou Alghena fled Syria when civil war broke out in 2011 and came to the UK, less than four years ago to build a new life. He was just 23 when he was forced to leave - his hometown had become a battleground in the civil war. “I was scared for my life,” said Tarek, “I have four younger sisters, three brothers and my parents. We all left together, they now live in Sweden.”

Tarek was a businessman, meeting friends at cafés and restaurants, before everyday life became a danger. During his family’s escape they became separated – with Tarek arriving alone in the UK in 2015 after spending years in exile in Jordan, Egypt and Turkey. “I left with nothing” said Tarek. He spent a month at the refugee camp in Calais before making his way to the UK. “It was bad at the camp. Life was difficult, we lived in tents most of the time. Agencies gave us food, but it was a scary place to be.”

In the UK, Tarek was provided with refugee status and settled in Cardiff after he obtained asylum. He spoke no English, and there was a six-month waiting list for entry onto the nearest formal ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) course, so he set about attending every voluntary English class he could find.

“When I arrived, it was sad being on my own. All I could say in English was ‘Hi, (I want to go) London, Cardiff, Manchester whatever the name of the cities, and some very few words.”

For the first few months, he attended survival English classes, delivered by volunteer teachers and university students at the Welsh Refugee Council and the Oasis Centre. As soon as a place became available, Tarek started studying formal ESOL classes at Cardiff and Vale College. Two years later, he applied for a foundation degree and, due to his refugee status, was able to take part in the University of South Wales’ Refugee Sanctuary Scheme. The scheme provides free intensive English preparation for refugees who want to study at university but don’t speak English as a first language.

Tarek was taught on a three month-intensive English course, which he passed last year, allowing him to successfully complete the first year of his university course. He said, “I’d be studying for about twelve hours a day. Sometimes I didn’t sleep, I’m always learning. I work at it every day.” He has finished the foundation year and in September starts the first year of a three-year degree in Quantity Surveying, and Commercial Management.

“I loved my old life,” he said. “It’s hard to explain how hard that is, having to leave and start somewhere new when you don’t want to. In your home, you have rights. When your country is broken down and becomes weak, you have no rights, you have no voice. Learning English has changed my life, I can have a voice. Maybe I’ll stay in Wales, maybe travel the world or maybe one day it will be safe for me to return to Syria.”

Mike Chick of the University of South Wales, nominated Tarek, he said: “Tarek’s experience shows how important ESOL is to the lives of refugees who seek sanctuary in Wales and the crucial role that voluntary organisations, further and higher education working together can play in integration and community cohesion. A route for migrants to survive and thrive!”

“Tarek is an example of the resourcefulness and stamina of the human spirit. His journey illuminates the tremendously important role that adult education can play in shaping lives.”