From refugee camp to dormitory: The Palestinian boys at Eton

Hareth Al Bustani

Middle East refugees are gaining access to the best in education and the traditional upper echelons of British society, thanks to the Cogito Scholarship Foundation. But the boys at Eton College are also giving back.


Eton College is synonymous with the British establishment — a breeding ground for Oxbridge students destined to reach the upper echelons of power.

Prince William and British Prime Minister David Cameron attended, as did many leading politicians, entrepreneurs and academics.

It is not an environment where you would expect to meet Palestinian refugees. But one charity is working to change that.

Ammar, 17, is in his first year at Eton, as part of a new generation of refugees who have gained access to the best educational institutions in the world, thanks to the Cogito Scholarship Foundation.  Eton requested his surname be withheld to ensure his privacy.

The 575-year-old school is an environment quite unlike any other that Ammar has experienced.

“I found the school very old. The food was different, there are lots of green spaces and I had to go to a chapel, which was my first experience in a church,” he says.

Until two years ago, Ammar lived with his parents and two brothers in the Al Yarmouk camp in Syria, a country where refugees were able to buy property and work, which they could not do in Lebanon.

However, his father moved to Lebanon for work and the intensifying Syrian civil war forced the family to move to the Burj Al Shemali camp in Tyre, Lebanon.

Today, Ammar studies maths, further maths, physics and design AS levels at Eton, and hopes to study engineering at university.  He is settling in well, playing football for his house and experimenting with new sports such as rowing and squash.

“I’ll try athletics and tennis next term,” he says with a smile.

Grateful for his opportunity, Ammar has started giving English lessons to Palestinian boys over Skype, and will spend next summer working with a charity.

Middle East education has always been a personal issue for Cogito’s founder, Ali Erfan.

“I was born in Iran and went to school there for the first eight years of my life,” says Mr Erfan.

“It became fashionable for Iranian parents to send their children abroad, to boarding school.”

He started at boarding schools in England at the age of 5 in 1970. At 8, his parents enrolled him full-time at a British boarding school.

“Over the years, I noticed quite a big difference between the didactic approaches to education in the West, as opposed to the East,” says Mr Erfan.

“Broadly speaking, in Iran, and I think in many parts of the Middle East, schooling and education had become mainly memory work, so you memorised stuff that you regurgitated and the better your memory worked, the better you did in your exams.”

In the UK he found that problem solving was a higher priority. He says Middle East education is “defined almost entirely as being something that focuses on the subjects that you learn”.

“There is a really low appreciation of education as actually more about opening your mind, building your character, giving you a world view, helping you to understand your place in the world, your place in history, how you got there, how to relate to other cultures, to other people, the importance of consensus, of compromise.”

Another Eton student, Abdallah, had never had a conversation in English before he moved to Eton a year-and-a-half ago.

Although he speaks English with a slight accent, he articulates himself immaculately.

“After one-and-a-half years here, only speaking English — because there are no Arabs except for me, Ammar and maybe one or two other guys — I got better,” he says.

Abdallah is studying maths, further maths and chemistry, and plans to pursue a mechanical engineering degree at University College London (UCL), or the University of British Columbia, in Canada.

He studied at United Nations schools in Tayer, Lebanon, and lived in a refugee camp with his parents and four siblings, until he was 8.

At Eton, he is being exposed not just to a new language and culture, but also sports — “some that I hadn’t even heard of before”, he says.

Eton has three long holidays in between terms, which gives him a chance to visit his family for a month at a time.

During these holidays he is able to fulfil one of the pledges Cogito asks of its scholars — to help their communities at home.

“I am volunteering with a charity to do English tuition this summer, and if anyone needs anything else, like if people have questions about education, England or Eton, I always answer them,” he says.

Ben Bulmer, Cogito director, says the pledge is a “five-point plan of what it means to be a kind of Cogito scholar”.

“I think that there are many ways in which you can help your community,” says Mr Bulmer.

“You can become influential, you can learn skills away from your country, and you can still have a huge impact and a huge benefit on where you’re from.”

Abdallah is followed not just by his coat-tails, but by a burden of responsibility.

In the long term, he hopes to one day find a good job in his country and help the Palestinian refugees living there.

“At the beginning, of course, I need to set myself up.  I need to find a good job and then, gradually, that would be the way to start helping my family, and then my relatives, and then the community.”

Abdallah was inspired by Mohamed, a fellow Palestinian refugee from Lebanon who also went to Eton, on a similar scholarship from the Horizon Foundation.

Mohamed, now 21, is in his third year of a civil engineering degree at UCL. He spent his first 16 years in a camp, attending schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Two out of three of Cogito’s scholars have GCC sponsors.  Mohamed was in Dubai last week, speaking at an event that the foundation hopes could encourage more UAE sponsors.

“Regarding the situation of Palestinians in Lebanon, as many people know, the Palestinians have been living in camps for almost 60 years — most of the Palestinians, not all of them,” he says.

“In terms of civil rights, we are not allowed to work in around 70 professions, including medicine, engineering, pharmacy, and basically most of the skilled professions.”

Mohamed lived in a two-bedroom house, sharing a room with his grandmother and two younger brothers.

In the past, Palestinians were able to accumulate property and work legally outside of their camps, he says, but Lebanon has limited resources and aims to discourage Palestinians from feeling too comfortable and nationalised.

“We don’t really want to be nationalised in our host countries. What we mostly call for is for better civil rights.”

While he found the language and cultural differences and “odd traditions” at Eton barriers at first, he soon adapted.

“Adapting to a new educational system is not easy, because the way we think about education is different,” says Mohamed.

“You learn and you memorise and then you go into the exam, while in the UK its more about the thinking process.

“It wasn’t easy. I did my best, I had to work hard, I got a lot of support from the school and it worked out well at the end.”

Mohamed excelled at his UN school, but joining Eton was a long process. At the end of year 10, a teacher from the school was introduced to Mohamed by his headmaster. He was interviewed twice and wrote a personal statement before his first official interview at the British embassy in Beirut.

After this, he also had a week-long assessment in the UK, where he presented the situation of Palestinians in Lebanon to teenagers studying the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Mr Bulmer says Cogito’s process is constantly becoming more formalised. “We now have a network of many schools across the region and we get sent a list of the top pupils,” he says.

“We send out teachers who go out to these countries and, over the process of 10 days, will interview 60 to 70 pupils and whittle it down to a shortlist of the top six students.”

The organisation has expanded to Morocco and will soon have its first Moroccan — and female — student.

Mohamed says Palestinian parents tell children that “education is the best asset you can have”, which helps to explain the success of the three boys at Eton.

Eton College

Eton College

“Most of the refugee population go to UN schools,” he says.

“They don’t really have a high level of education, they have very limited facilities, but we are encouraged to go to school.”

The main issue, he says, is that while Lebanon has some good universities, most families cannot afford them, and even after graduating the students cannot work there.

Things are slowly changing, and organisations are trying to help Palestinians to attend universities in Lebanon, as well as cheaper alternatives such as Turkey and northern Cyprus.

Although he needs to work in the UK for a few years, Mohamed’s long-term plan is resolute: to return to the Middle East having built up experience.

“When I go back to my community I’m like everyone else,” he says.

“But when I go to the UK, I adapt with the new society, with the new culture.

“I got a bigger exposure to new standards of life but I really can’t forget where I came from.”


Published on 29 March 2015 by The National UAE