Studying for an MSc in International Humanitarian Affairs

I am Abdulsalam, but most of my friends and colleagues call me Salam. Currently I am a student completing the MSc in International Humanitarian Affairs, which is a part-time and online distance learning programme.

I am originally from Syria, which was one of the oldest cultures where agriculture and cattle breeding appeared for the first time in world history. Syria had a lot of beautiful elements of an ancient civilization before the civil war began in 2011. Since then, fighting has killed hundreds of thousands of people, injured more than one million, and forced about 10 million people to be displaced. Almost four million seek safety and security as refugees in neighboring countries or in Europe, especially Germany.

By 2011, I had graduated from Damascus University, with a major in English Literature. I was urged to leave the country, as I did not want to be part of the civil war. What had started as a series of peaceful demonstrations had taken the direction of a full-scale armed conflict by then. it was necessary for me to leave Syria and seek safety and security in Kurdistan region of Iraq. I really miss Syria where the majority of my family members are still residing.

Erbil Citadel

I am currently living in Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The only available work for me was in the humanitarian sector and I was very happy to be serving the people that are affected by the conflict. I started to work as interpreter with the White Helmets in Domize Camp where I was resident. I have been working with many humanitarian NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières, and the Norwegian Refugee Council on fixed-term contracts as a translator and gender-based violence trainer.

The key reason for me to study for the MSc in International Humanitarian Affairs is my direct experience as an affected community member of the Syrian humanitarian crisis and later my involvement in the humanitarian response with many NGOs. This enabled me to support the community to which I belong. It has been a continuous learning process, especially with
Médecins Sans Frontières where I found empathetic people from many countries around world providing medical support to refugees. My direct involvement led me to continue learning more about the humanitarian response from different aspects, such as programming, project management, evaluation, research and sector-specific responses such as shelter, health, food and nutrition. I was also interested in understanding the global politics, donor influences and policy implications in local responses. All these factors led me to study for the MSc in International Humanitarian Affairs.

To-date, I clearly remember the moment I left Syria and crossed the border to become a refugee in Kurdistan region of Iraq. All my dreams and ambitions as a young and fresh graduate from university, who wanted to enter into the next phase of my life had collapsed in front of my eyes. All I wanted was to live in peace and have a good life. Never, I thought to become a refugee. Through my work as a humanitarian worker in northern Iraq, I developed new dreams – to study and become an international humanitarian worker to help people that are affected by conflicts and disasters around the globe. I have applied for many higher educational courses and requested for scholarships without any success. According to one of the Syrian proverbs, ‘at crisis times, all doors are closed’, however, a door was opened for me when I met Dr Janaka Jayawickrama from the University of York in 2017. Janaka was on a training mission to Erbil, and I supported his mission as a translator. We talked about the Syrian crisis and the humanitarian response. Janaka was interested about my future plans and I explained that I would like to go to Europe to continue my studies for a Masters degree as there are no opportunities in Iraq. It would be difficult as I would have to follow the course of all Syrian refugees, crossing several countries to reach Europe and it would be very expensive.

Janaka explained that there is an online distance learning MSc in International Humanitarian Affairs at the University of York. He further explained that with my educational qualifications, field experiences and English language skills, I would make a good student on the MSc. I checked through the University of York webpages to find out that the MSc in International Humanitarian Affairs is designed to provide higher education to people like me, as well as humanitarian workers that are already working in the field. It offered all the learning elements I was expecting from a postgraduate programme and I did not have to travel to Europe to gain this qualification.

Any humanitarian worker who wants to increase structured knowledge and experience can find that opportunity in the MSc in International Humanitarian Affairs at the University of York. I have learned a lot about the history of humanitarian work, linking it with contemporary arguments for and against humanitarian interventions and the current polices, practices and politics of the global humanitarian system.

I am learning and getting the opportunity to debate and discuss different concepts with people from different backgrounds, cultures and with different experiences working with different or similar kinds of humanitarian response to global crises. As students of the MSc, in each module we are introduced to a new topic in humanitarianism such as protection and assistance. All our learning is centered on the connection between humans and the environment, which is key to protection and assistance as well as effective humanitarian responses. I am currently learning about the process of humanitarian responses: food and nutrition, health, shelter and water and sanitation hygiene. In this, I am learning how effective and relevant responses are based on each cluster as complementary elements within any social, political, cultural, economic and environmental context.

The most important thing I enjoy and like about studying at York is the commitment of MSc programme staff – their commitment to the subject and flexibility in communication. Whenever I want to contact them they are available to answer my questions or provide me with additional academic or policy documents. This provides students with a feeling that we are attending the lectures at York and not a distance learning programme. The Library has a strong online facility, which is easy to navigate and user friendly. The assessments are influencing us to think critically and examine the current humanitarian policy and practice within a rapidly changing global structures. Each activity we engage with in learning and teaching is designed with up-to-date information and encourages us to think beyond the ‘business-as-usual’. Further, the group work we participate in allows us to understand the challenges and solutions for collaboration and coordination within multicultural teams.

The MSc in International Humanitarian Affairs provide us with essential knowledge, skills and understanding to become relevant and effective humanitarian workers. It allows us to understand that the affected communities are the experts of their lives and engage with them with respect and humility.

In the mountains

Kurdistan has a natural beauty, and I am a nature-connected person, so I prefer to spend my free time in engaging with nature, with friends and climbing mountains. Also, it is such a joy to drink a cup of tea or coffee, especially in evenings where people come together and socialize around the Erbil Citadel, which dates back to 5000 BC.

As a refugee, I have realised the uncertainty and danger of life and how impermanent our existence as human beings. Studying through the MSc in International Humanitarian Affairs has given me a perspective to engage with this uncertainty and danger as well as develop my own frameworks to facilitate solutions for affected populations.

The only challenge I have faced since I started the MSc is the financial difficulties due to insecurity of my work as a humanitarian worker. All the humanitarian agencies are dependent on external funding and there is a high level of uncertainty in this process. So far, the University of York has been understanding of my situation as a refugee living within an insecure environment. Without their support and understanding, I wouldn’t be able to participate in this highly valuable higher education programme. I am very happy to be part of a global humanitarian programme in a truly international University.

One thought on “Studying for an MSc in International Humanitarian Affairs”

  1. Hi Abdulsalam,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I cannot begin to imagine what it feels like being a refugee and making the best out of it. I live in Nigeria and have recently been offered a place. I work in extractives and volunteer at Internally Displaced People’s camps in Nigeria every month.

    Insurgency has created so much problems in Nigeria and land has become extremely valuable particularly in northern nigeria where most of the gold mining happens. No shelter, water, healthcare and even basic amenities. people are forced to grapple with contamination from mining waste amidst insecurity.

    Your article provides hope. Thanks for sharing. Please do keep writing.

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