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This prof helps refugees enter university

Most people help refugees with offers of donation or time in practical ways. Not Dr Gül İnanç, who is getting them schooled at university

Dr Gül İnanç standing beside walls with colourful drawingsPHOTOS: JASPER YU

Three years ago, Dr Gul İnanç was a visiting fellow at Toronto’s Centre for Refugee Studies at York University when inspiration struck. She realised many displaced people in Southeast Asia were denied access to education, and that she could do something about it.

She put the plan on paper, and the Open Universities for Refugees was born five months later.

“I wanted to start a meaningful non-profit initiative that would give refugees and displaced people access to higher education,” explains Dr İnanç.

Today, the Open Universities for Refugees has ongoing projects in Malaysia, Indonesia and New Zealand. One initiative is a bridging course that helps students transition to university studies.

On this three-week course, the students, who are mostly 18 years old or younger, are prepped for university by learning how to write reports, make presentations and manage their time and expectations, which in turn builds their confidence. Turkey-born Dr İnanç, an expert in education for peace and conflict resolution, teaches a class on intercultural dialogue as part of this bridging course.

Dr Gül İnanç in her office

The lecturer at NTU’s School of Art, Design & Media says there’s no reason why refugees should be denied the privilege of attending university. “When it comes to our own children, it is natural to send them for tertiary education. Displaced families want the same for their own kids. Several years ago, they were functioning families in Syria or Afghanistan, and their hopes haven’t changed now that they are displaced.”

The Open Universities for Refugees also runs a teacher-to-teacher online mentorship programme for the volunteer teachers at refugee centres. Dr İnanç is happy that experienced teachers from two private schools in Singapore have come on board to help these volunteers.

One refugee teacher, Farzana Salehi, who has been teaching history at the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre in West Java since 2015, says: “I’ve benefitted so much from the programme. When I had a question about one of the lessons I was preparing, I contacted a teacher from Singapore for help. She gave me very sound tips that I have been using in class.”

Knowledge & wisdom

Dr İnanç’s impact as an educator has not gone unnoticed in Singapore too. In 2015, she received the Koh Boon Hwee Scholars Award as her student had nominated her for making a significant impact in her life.

“I have been lecturing at various international universities for the last 17 years and still feel very excited each time I enter the lecture hall,” the 48-year-old says humbly. “That’s because I respect my students – they are why I do this job.”

Dr Gül İnanç standing against a concrete wall

She adds: “Beyond textbook knowledge, I try to impart concepts like empathy, dialogue and ethics as I teach. My hope is that such practical knowledge becomes wisdom for my students.”

One good example is a module she teaches at NTU, Faith and Art. As a central part of the course, students are given the opportunity via field trips in Singapore to study and learn about different cultures and their practices through their art and architecture.

“I always tell my students this class is not about religion. It’s about art and architecture seen through the lens of religion. It is essential to know about the cultures of others who we live with,” she says.

Culture champ

Encouraging awareness is a constant theme in Dr İnanç’s work. Since 2011, she has been working with a team of experts and her students to promote cultural heritage appreciation. Last year, she was commissioned by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to write two chapters on world heritage for a teacher’s handbook.

“Intercultural dialogue and respect towards others are an integral part of being educated. That’s why I strongly believe in promoting global culture heritage,” she says.

Growing pensive, Dr İnanç adds her work will be complete when her students continue the virtuous circle.

“I hope that in 10 years’ time, the Open Universities for Refugees will be run by the refugee students that we are supporting right now,” she smiles.