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From refugee to graduate: Fatema’s success story

Fatema fled from her home country of Bangladesh to Cyprus at 16 without finishing school. Investing all of her time in daily survival, she never had the opportunity to resume her schooling. Upon hearing about The Open University and its open to all policy, she enrolled on a Social Work course with the help of funding and support from OUSBA (The Open University Student Budget Accounts).


Fatema shares her story with the OU.

“Both my academic and personal interests have been deeply shaped by my life experience. I wanted to make a difference – to make a positive change for myself and the socially vulnerable people I was working with. I wanted to grasp a deep understanding of society and the social injustice around the world, and enhance my capabilities to combat that.”

Turbulent beginnings

As a young girl in a middle-class Muslim conservative family in Bangladesh, society outside of the walls of the family house was gravely important. Being outspoken and assertive made me question certain societal and religious norms that I was bound to as a female. I was subjected to oppression in a violent manner; mainly by my dominant father, who was fuelled by the greater patriarchal society. At the age of 16, I fled from Bangladesh and found myself as an ‘alien’ in Cyprus under a highly unfavourable migration policy.

My anger towards what had happened to me fuelled my passion to work for positive social transformation, through combating social injustice and promoting fundamental rights. I feel that by working with vulnerable social groups, I can also establish a sense of justice against what I experienced.

With great financial hardship from being a self-financing individual from 16, accessing university felt like a dream that was impossible to achieve – I spent years tirelessly exploring every possibility to secure a scholarship. Due to the gender-based violence I was subjected to from an early age, I wasn’t able to complete my schooling before escaping from Bangladesh; and in Cyprus, I never had the opportunity to study, as I had to invest all my time in surviving.

Open to all

The OU was the only academic institution that I’d heard of that was open to all and didn’t focus on minimum entry requirements. I was determined to register for an OU course despite my financial situation, and even promised myself:

“Whether my financial constraints permit me to buy a meal or not, I will make sure I complete this course.”

Thankfully, the OUSBA team couldn’t have been more helpful, finding ways for me to fund my studies. They supported me in applying to the EuroFAF fund, where I was awarded £900. I was then able to pay the balance through OUSBA. My ultimate plan was to become a credit-transfer student at a university in Cyprus – OUSBA made this happen – after completing my OU course, I was awarded a full scholarship for a degree in Social Work.

Growth through education

Through my studies, I acquired the theoretical framework to make better sense of my experiences; and when reflecting on the last few years, I can see how much I’ve grown. I can position my practical knowledge into a systematic understanding of social structure. My professional capacity of working with the marginalised and vulnerable population has been significantly enhanced, as I am better equipped with knowledge and skills to deal with much more complicated and sensitive social problems.

Most of the students I encountered via the OU forums and Facebook study groups were mature and motivated. They didn’t fear to think beyond the texts of our reading materials or make suggestions based on their diverse real-life experiences. I got a great deal of help from them during my assignments.

I was very determined, despite the difficulties I was encountering and was focused on reaching my goal. At times it was tough to keep up with project work and a full-time job, as well as the constant anxiety I had for my sister’s well-being and safety – she was thousands of miles away in an abusive environment. My tutor was considerate, supportive and encouraging, paving the way to my undergraduate degree in Social Work – one of the foremost things I desired most in life. The knowledge I gained from my OU course to build upon my understanding of human society has been priceless! This is the first time I have found myself seeing my surroundings critically and practising the theories learnt in my text books.

My wings had spread

“For me, education is definitely not something that can or should be taken for granted. I was extremely lucky to have gotten the opportunity to study, to acquire knowledge which made me make sense of the world. and boosted my self-confidence to work better with vulnerable people.”

I started setting the bar of my work higher, and when I graduated, I felt as though my wings had spread, enabling me to dream even bigger. My siblings and friends have taken great pride in my achievement, especially those close to me that have lived through my hardship – always giving me much needed support during the tough times and trusting my capabilities. I’d like them to be able to count on me if they are ever shadowed by an abusive condition again.

By graduating with an Honourable Award of Outstanding Achievement for Social Contribution, has confirmed their choice to stand by me. My best friends were as excited as I was when I graduated!

Follow your heart: build on your passion

Studying with the OU shows that you are dynamic and highly determined to acquire an education. The OU is unlike most red-brick universities, it’s unique in a very precious way – it gives opportunity and flexibility to anyone who wants a higher education, despite their social and financial limitations.

The best tip I can give is to follow your heart and build on your passion. Education isn’t about gaining a certificate to secure a job. It’s something much more special, greater, and powerful in our lives.

I was motivated to achieve my goals, maintaining a full-time education whilst being a self-financing individual to make ends meet – all these efforts feel worth it now. My time with OU was short but highly impactful. This is what has initiated my identity as a university student, equipped me with knowledge, and kept my hopes high during tough times.

Giving back

I am now a professional offering assistance to vulnerable groups, and a concerned citizen with enhanced capabilities to contribute towards making the world a better place for all. In the last five years, I have widened the sphere of my activism from migrants’ right to LGBT issues and have taken on several initiatives independently.

My working conditions greatly improved and I gained employment as a social worker for torture survivors at a not-for-profit in Cyprus. I was trusted with more challenging projects, which were crucial for my professional growth as a human rights advocate.  As a result of my experience and education, I have now moved to London and work with the British Red Cross.”

Find out more:

About the Social Science courses available

Further information on The Open University Student Budget Account (OUSBA)

About Author

Hannah is part of the Media Relations Team at The Open University, working with the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies. With experience both agency and in-house, Hannah has worked on campaigns for a number of large corporate companies and brands, including RBS, NatWest, Travelodge, Audible, AA and the Royal Academy of Dance. She has completed a Masters in Publishing Studies from Oxford Brookes, and enjoys photography, reading and going to the theatre.

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