Pinar Aksu: Allow wealth of talent among refugees and asylum seekers to flourish

This year we’re asking you to reflect on the people who gave you a helping hand in your career. Migration is part of life. For centuries, before the construction of borders, people have exchanged knowledge and traded across communities. Some people move for work, to study or to visit new places, but some people are forced to move for their safety. Of these, some are called asylum seekers, and others are labelled as refugees. The labels bring their own restrictions – restrictions defined by others, not by the ­displaced individuals themselves.

Portraits of five of the Young Academy of Scotlands ARAR members, commissioned by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and painted by I.D. Campbell.  Featured, left to right: (left) Pinar Aksu (top) Debora Kayembe, Alaa Hamdon, (bottom) Shawki Al Dubaee, Zaher Al Bakour
Portraits of five of the Young Academy of Scotlands ARAR members, commissioned by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and painted by I.D. Campbell. Featured, left to right: (left) Pinar Aksu (top) Debora Kayembe, Alaa Hamdon, (bottom) Shawki Al Dubaee, Zaher Al Bakour

Borders and migration have been a topic of contention for many years now. From the Scottish independence referendum, to Brexit, migration has been a central discussion within Scottish communities and by our policymakers. Fear has fuelled strong arguments and divided families. People seeking refuge are unfamiliar to us –they are labelled ‘others’. Wherever there is dissatisfaction and inequality, it’s all too easy to pin the blame on a group who have no voice.

Most people do not know the problems people face when moved to a different country. When people are seeking asylum in the UK they cannot work: imagine not being able to ­practice your job and meet others within a new community. Worse, asylum seekers are at risk of being detained indefinitely. In some ­cases, asylum seekers with high school qualifications cannot attend university due to their status.

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Such barriers lead to long term ­difficulties. People seeking asylum suffer from mental health problems as a result of being isolated from any community. People who do not know how long they must remain in the asylum system live in increasing hopelessness, unable to make choices, unable to live fully.

We have a long way to go before we have a just system in which the basic human rights of asylum seekers are protected. Until then, the third ­sector plays a key role in guiding, providing support and being a family to people in the asylum process. Support organisations are vital to create spaces where people are welcomed, and within which their voices are heard.

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The aim of many such organisations is one of integration. Members of the RSE Young Academy of Scotland (YAS) believe that integration is a two-way process; a bridge must be built between communities, so they can understand one other and provide support for each other. It is not fair to expect other people to ­forget their history, their language or ­traditions. Without integration initiatives in place, assimilation can ­happen only slowly—and with greater distress, more pain, more anger.

As one of the largest national young academies in the world today, YAS provides a platform for young researchers, artists, entrepreneurs and leaders to respond to global problems such as climate change and social inequality – of which mass migration is symptomatic.

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Migration and the rights of refugees are therefore a significant area of interest to YAS members. We ­recognise the need for diverse voices among our members, and we recognise the value of those new challenging and often painful perspectives that new Scots bring. Our work is at the forefront of integration projects carried out by national young academies worldwide.

Since 2016, we have pioneered a new membership programme, seeking out at-risk academic and refugee (ARAR) candidates during our ­competitive recruitment rounds. This scheme provides access to ­professional networks and support that may otherwise be inaccessible. In return, YAS’s collective work benefits from the expertise, life experiences and talents of new colleagues.

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In previous weeks, this column described the RSE’s recent ­commission of portraits of refugee and migrant YAS members by artist I D Campbell. These portraits not only celebrate the stories of these new Scots, but they also demonstrate the value of diversity in our communities, recognising the great talent that refugees and asylum seekers bring to Scotland.

We are excited to open the next round of YAS recruitment next month, inviting applications again from exceptional individuals now resident in ­Scotland – young ­scholars, scientists, professionals, future ­leaders – who are keen to serve the aims of our organisation.

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We have a long journey ahead before everyone in Scotland is empowered enough that we can all respond to one another as equals. Until then, we must all remember to raise our voices, to ask questions, and to engage with these issues of migration which affect us all.

Pinar Aksu, Young Academy of Scotland’s ARAR member.