University for all – ‘Life Stories’ in Calais, Manchester and London

 Beautiful future Rainbow Haven

‘Beautiful future’: Life story titles from the prospective Rainbow Haven student group, Manchester.

European refugee higher education opportunities: Higher education for refugees in Europe:  Some information.


The Centre for Narrative Research taught a short university course on ‘Life Stories’ with residents at the Jungle refugee camp in Calais, in 2015-2016. This course is now continuing in other environments where university access is low, and will also be available online.

The ‘University for all’ project was supported by UEL’s civic engagement strategic fund, and is now supported by the UEL subject areas of Psychosocial Studies, Sociology, and Global Studies.

Teaching involved photography, art and poetry workshops, in addition to life story work. Camp residents were involved with organising and conducting the initiatives, as well as participating as students.

A book written by residents, most of them taking the course, has appeared with Pluto Press: ‘Voices from the ‘Jungle”.

The ‘Life Stories’ course won the 2017 ‘Widening Participation’ category of the Guardian University Awards.

Students taking UEL’s OLIve Open Learning weekend course for people from refugee backgrounds, were from 2017 able to use their photographic work and accompanying writing as part of the Life Stories course. The resulting public blog can be seen here: Displaces blog

The course has also been delivered to part of the the Greater Manchester Refugee Support Network, at Rainbow Haven, in autumn 2017.

In May/June 2018, the course was taught with the NOMAD (Nations of Migration Awakening the Diaspora) group in Harrow, West London, and to the UNITE Migrant Workers Education Programme. Both these student groups are using the course as a starting point to prepare books for publication.

In 2018-2019, it is hoped to offer the course to unaccompanied minors who are asylum seekers in London, to Syrian refugees in Jordan, and online.


Media coverage of the University for all ‘Life Stories’ short course in Calais:

The Conversation, ‘Life stories in the Calais ‘Jungle”, by Aura Lounasmaa

Times Higher: ‘University for all’

Educating Syria – Research Professional

CBC Ideas, ‘No Man’s Land’ part 1, by Philip Coulter, featuring UfA’s Aura Lounasma

CBC Ideas, ‘No man’s land’ part 2, by Philip Coulter, featuring UfA’s Aura Lounasmaa

The ‘Jungle’ camp

There were between 3,000 and 10,000 people living in the Calais camp when we were teaching there, with few facilities, as the camp was informal (with the exception of a fenced container area, some group tent accommodation administered by French social services, and a small French government facility for women and children). Demolitions  reduced the work of some volunteer associations, and food was often sparse. Infrastructure -water and sanitation – were poor, and education and especially medical facilities were sparse.

Many camp residents with English skills and often, family connections to the UK, or histories working with UK or allied military forces, were trying to reach that country. The residents included several hundred unaccompanied minors, a number of whom had  family in the UK. Legal initiatives to allow safe passage for such residents to the UK were highly complex and drawn out. Efforts to reach the UK by road, rail or sea were heavily policed and highly dangerous, all along the northern French coast.

There was no clear political commitment from France or the UK to resolve the situation, except by closing the camp and requiring all residents to seek asylum in France. The lack made residents’ difficult lives there a human rights issue. Education is one important human right.

The camp was a physically demanding and psychologically difficult place in which to live. However, it also at times opened up into a dynamic space for refugees and migrants to resist racist and exclusionary narratives about who they are, establishing meaningful relationships of solidarity among themselves, as well as with volunteers from the UK and across Europe.

‘University for all’ recognises that university education, like other fields of education, is a dialogue, that students themselves must shape their own education, and that teachers learn from students, as well as the other way around.

The ‘Life Stories’ course

In the UEL course, participants read life stories (for instance, those of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Barack Obama, as well as Malala Yousafzai), discussing fictional and critical representations of stories (Sam Selvon, Chimimanda Adichie), examining poetic (JJ Bola, Mahmoud Darwish, Maya Angelou, Warshan Shire), photographic, and filmic representations of lives, and thinking about theories of good lives (Plato, ‘The Republic’). This work involves both substantive discussion, and development of English skills. Students also create written, oral and visual life stories of their own.

Higher education for refugees

‘University for all’ is a response to widespread recognition that people who are refugees are under-served by and have poor access to university education, despite having very strong motivations and qualifications. Students on the ‘Life Stories’ course in Calais came from a range of countries – Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Ethiopia, Eritrea. Many were professionals – electrical engineers, opticians – or university students or graduates in a range of subjects from English literature through political science to physics.  All were keen to further their education.  Many students used the course as a ‘gateway’ to other higher education possibilities.

The course’s ‘life stories’ focus is a way to develop critical reading and writing; to expand English skills; and in some cases, to express important aspects of students’ experience.

Some students also want to use this course to gain a more public hearing for their stories about their journeys and lives. Camp residents co-authored a book (‘Voices from the “Jungle”‘, Pluto Press, forthcoming, 2017) as a result of the project

The university today

‘University for all’ exemplifies many educators’ and students’ convictions that university education should be open to all, regardless of their resources, and across all national and social contexts – including those where people do not have full or any citizenship rights.

‘University for all’ is committed, as we are in ‘Educating without borders’ more generally, to working collaboratively with higher education colleagues and other colleagues in many institutions. It also works on the assumption that arts disciplines and their practice are central to education, including university education.

In addition, we want to work in a different way to that often now urged on university academics and other educationalists, which is to generate auditised product and compete with colleagues in the education ‘marketplace’. Instead, and in accordance with the University of East London’s civic engagement mission, we want to rebuild the university as a collective of people who are learning and teaching together, with common interests, as the original Latin word, universitas, implied

Work from the course

Camp residents involved with the course co-authored a book (Pluto Press, 2017) and also contributed to Gideon Mendel’s book, ‘Dzangal’. In addition, they made a short film, The Bridge  and produced a number of photo-portfolios (see our ‘Displaces’ pages).

Course work will also be archived with UEL’s Refugee Council archive and some will be available on the Centre for Narrative Research’s website.

Work from the course, presented by camp residents (in person, by Skype, on audio or through visual arts),  has been part of the UEL Voices East Civic Engagement Festival, June 2016; of the Worldwide Tribe and Architecture Foundation ‘Papers’ event at the Barbican Conservatory, June 2016; of UEL’ Refugee Week events; of the East End Film Festival 2016; of the 2016 Society of Oral History annual conference, and of 2016’s ‘Refugee Tales’ project, part of the UK’s Refugee Week.

Examples of other work from the project:

Katrine Moeller Hansen: Narrating the ‘marginalised’, Hansen

Bhavesh Hindocha, Loud Minority Films: ‘Who Opens A School…’

Our partners

In addition to our thoroughgoing and much-appreciated support from UEL, we are being greatly helped by other volunteers and organisations working in the camp, for instance: L’Ecole du Chemin des Dunes, started by a camp resident, Zimako Jones, who has now build many other public facilities, and who runs them alongside many other camp residents and UK and French volunteers, in particular Virginie Tiberghien

L’Ecole des Arts et Metiers, built and run by another camp resident, Alpha, and also operated by camp residents and volunteers

Jungle Books Library, established by Mary Jones and again run by camp residents

The Darfuri School, organised by Khalid Mansour and .Kate McAllistair

Baloo’s Youth Centre

The (unofficial) Women and Children Centre                                                                                                                                                                Residents such as Zimako and Alpha, as well as Khalid, Habibi, Afrika and Shikeb, have been crucial in helping with the courses.

Residents have already engaged in storytelling through forums such as ‘Refugees voice2015’, ( initiated by a resident who wanted to share stories from the camp, and ‘En quete de liberte’, authored by filmmaker Babak Inaloo (

The Good Chance Centre, set up by British playwrights, has been an important platform for the residents’ storytelling and art projects (

‘Resolutions’ is an educational storytelling project that arose from interviews with and portraits of camp residents in the ‘resolutions’ month of January 2016 (

We aim to collaborate with such initiatives.

The team for the courses included Corinne Squire, Aura Lounasmaa, Tim Hall, Cigdem Esin,  Molly Andrews, Valentina Vitali, and Giorgia Dona, from UEL; administrative academic help at UEL from, among others, Reena Sood, Allyson Malatesta, and Helen Powell; Katrine Møller Hansen, visiting CNR, from the University of Copenhagen; Natalie Ludvigsen, UEL; Marie Godin, from Oxford University (and Visiting Fellow at UEL’s Centre for Migration, Refugees and Belonging, CMRB), and Tahir Zaman, from SOAS (and Visiting Fellow at UEL’s CMRB). London UEL students  Jamilson Lemos, Samina Rana, Hanna Rasmussen and Philippa Warner from UEL also joined us.  Gideon Mendel and Crispin Hughes conducted photography workshops (see the ‘Displaces’ page). Chila Kumari Burman conducted an art workshop (see the ‘Visual Storytelling’ page).JJ Bola joined us to initiate a poetry workshop. Bhavesh Hindocha of Loud Minority films worked with us and ELCD to produce a short movie. Ann Phoenix (UCL Institute of Education) and Olivia Sagan (Bishop Grosseteste University) also joined us.

Many other academic colleagues, at for instance UCL Institute of Education, London Metropolitan University, Manchester University, Exeter University, and Manchester Metropolitan University, are also keen to participate in expanding refugee education and have become part of the Refugee Higher Education Network, initiated by UEL.

We hold Refugee Education Network meetings in London about such possibilities, and how we might expand them, regularly. For details, contact Aura Lounasmaa

University for all in the future

We are planning to expand in-person, mobile and online provision of this and possibly other courses, with volunteer association partners, to cover other informal and formal refugee settlements in northern France and elsewhere, and to build on the courses’ value as a gateway to higher education.

UEL is also running a two-year Erasmus + project of workshops for refugee education and training, OLive (the Open Learning Initiative). For details, contact Aura Lounasaa

If you are interested in finding out more, please contact Corinne Squire ,  or  Aura Lounasmaa