Through academic initiatives, Hungarian university integrates refugees into community

Budapest — Amid Europe’s anti-refugee rhetoric led in large part by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Central European University has launched several academic initiatives to help refugees integrate into Hungarian society and to continue their education.

The initiatives include a program allowing refugees to audit master’s courses in the areas of social sciences, policy and mathematics; and a weekend program for refugees and asylum seekers including English and Hungarian language lessons, job market and cultural training, a human rights course and academic tutoring.

“These are folks who have decided to try to stay here and go through the legal processes,” Colleen Sharkey, head of CEU Media Relations, said during a recent interview at the school’s main campus in the center of the Hungarian capital.
A view of Budapest overlooking the Hungarian Parliament Building | Photo by Katie Perkowski

The US and Hungarian-accredited university launched the Refugees Course Auditing Initiative in September 2015, with the winter term beginning Jan. 11. The weekend courses are set to start this month.

Both efforts stem from a larger CEU response that began at the height of the refugee crisis in the summer of 2015, when thousands flooded through Budapest daily on their way to Germany or Austria. According to Eurostat’s most recent Asylum Quarterly Report, the number of first-time asylum applicants in Hungary during this time was more than 108,000.

To participate in the programs, refugees or asylum seekers must show proof of their registered status in Hungary.

Eight refugees participated in the auditing program during the autumn term, including citizens of Syria, Iran and Pakistan, Prem Kumar Rajaram, program coordinator and associate professor, said during a recent phone interview. Some had completed degrees in their respective countries before applying for refugee status in Hungary.

The initiative aims to both help refugees integrate into their new society and to give them a sense of what it’s like to undertake graduate-level studies in English and at a Western-style research university, Rajaram said.

The auditing program requires refugees to attend seminars and to participate in class discussions amounting to at least 100 minutes per week, with some professors asking participants to present class readings. Refugees can audit one class per term, which amount to either two or four credits, according to the school’s website.

Upon completion, CEU helps refugees apply to full-time courses if they wish.

The soon-to-launch weekend courses were created after a few refugees participating in the auditing program were unable to keep up with the English pace and had to drop out, Sharkey said. One hope is that after completing the weekend program, participants’ English levels will improve enough to audit courses and continue their education.

The benefits of such educational initiatives are more intangible, Rajaram said.

“When we create opportunities through education for people who are qualified but are unable to get into European universities for many different reasons … it creates a sense of people belonging to a community — not simply as guests but as members equal to everyone else,” he said.

CEU focuses on humanities and social sciences, and it is up to each department to decide whether a refugee is admitted to audit respective classes.

Rajaram is also working to garner external funding to launch the Refugee Education Initiative, a preparatory program for refugees around Europe that would be modeled after the school’s Roma Access Programs.

The two-pronged, nine-month initiative is aimed at helping Roma students with bachelor degrees pursue graduate-level study through intensive training in English, academic writing and critical thinking skills. CEU covers all costs for participating students.

“In Hungary there is little or no jobs, careers or language training offered by the government, so there’s a large gap,” Rajaram said. “We believe … we can help fill the gap.”
“The point is to help students who might have some obstacles to get access to higher education, and so that’s what we do with the Roma Access Programs, and that’s what we hope to do with the Refugee Education Initiative,” Sharkey said.

Katie Perkowski, 27, is a 2015 graduate of Trinity College Dublin, where she earned a M.Sc. in International Politics, and a 2010 journalism graduate of the University of Kentucky. Now based between the US and Europe, she is seeking freelance writing, editing and social enterprise opportunities.