From Refugee to PhD
The Chronicle meets Rabia Nasimi, and gets to know the woman behind the headlines.
Rabia Nasimi, a woman already widely recognized for her work and achievements, is now a very busy first year PhD student here at Lucy Cavendish College. She has well-defined interests within her chosen field of sociology already at 23, and she serves as the Chronicle’s BME (Black, Minority, Ethnic) Editor – helping make the Lucy Cavendish community more vibrant and diverse. On top of making great academic and extracurricular contributions to Cambridge, she continues to support, when possible, the work of the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA), a grassroots organization that facilitates the integration of Afghan refugees into British society. Rabia herself was an Afghan refugee to Britain, arriving at the age of five.
This trajectory in particular – from refugee to Cambridge – has attracted consistent media attention in the past few weeks. A number of features have been written about Rabia, notably on her life story and future goals. Behind the pieces on Rabia’s refugee experience and work, however, there is a person who is intellectually curious, dedicated, friendly, and focused. I had the privilege to recently interview Rabia, where we decided to “fill in the gaps” and discuss the aspects of her life that have been less fleshed-out by mainstream reporting.
Her field of study, sociology, is one that she believes is uniquely positioned to address the contemporary issues she is most interested in. A graduate of both Goldsmiths and the LSE, Rabia has studied sociology throughout both her undergrad and masters. “Sociology is important as a field for understanding social problems and the complex structures in our world,” she told me. “It is also quite interdisciplinary, so you are not tied down to a particular methodology or kind of topic.” Her current research broadly focuses on Afghan identity. “Ethnic identities are profoundly important,” she said when discussing her reasoning behind her study. “They’re specifically fascinating in Afghanistan. I’m interested in how we construct identities through interactions and how those are sustained.” In addition to being personally relevant, Afghanistan is a very multi-ethnic and diverse country, which makes it an interesting context for sociological research.
Rabia’s research was inspired by both personal experience and a desire to learn more about Afghanistan and Afghan people. Wherever possible, she says she has related previous academic work to contemporary issues within Afghanistan, especially to the construction of identity, ethnicity, and nationality. This research augments her work outside the classroom with the ACAA, a grassroots organization which her father founded in 2001. Based in London, the ACAA works to integrate Afghan refugees into British society, by providing mentoring, education, support, language classes, and events. Rabia has been involved in the ACAA’s work since its inception. She has done it all: fundraising, project management, reporting, finance, and participating in the day-to-day activities of the association.
“Supporting refugees and enabling them to integrate is something we should see as societally valuable,” she argues. “We need to understand how culturally foreign many people feel when they arrive in the UK. They speak different languages, may practice a different religion, have different traditions. They should be able to get to the point of feeling confident about their new home.” By providing community-based, grassroots services, the ACAA fills this extremely important gap. Rabia believes there is huge potential for the organization to expand, perhaps through getting more involved in the policy aspect of migration.
I asked Rabia if she wants to continue this sort of work throughout and after her PhD, and her answer was largely affirmative. She is interested in potentially moving from the grassroots to the policy level, and is also passionate about going back to Afghanistan at some point. Diasporic involvement in home country economic, political, and social development is crucial, she notes. “I want to learn as much as I can, and support the development of Afghanistan. It’s very important to me.”
In the short term, her goals for Cambridge are a mix of academic and practical. She wants to meet and work with other academics who are interested in Afghanistan, learn from them, and publish. “I also want a better understanding of university life,” she says, laughing. “I currently don’t have much free time.” But she says that both the sociology department and Lucy Cavendish have been very welcoming communities, and that this has made her first few weeks of school positive and enjoyable.
In these same past few weeks, features on Rabia have been done in a number of media outlets, from the Cambridge News to the BBC. The media attention of Rabia has been very positive, noting her great accomplishments and work supporting refugee communities. But still there are gaps. She thinks people reading about her may assume that she is fortunate to be receiving her education, and that she maybe has not experienced challenges beyond being a refugee. “Something that doesn’t come out is that it takes a lot of hard work for anyone to get to Cambridge,” she says.
“Everyone has a different journey to Cambridge. Some people take gap years, fail modules, take on jobs in between years.”
Despite the warnings of family and friends, she does read the comments section on articles written about her. “I don’t mind reading the comments,” she says firmly. “It’s important to see what the misconceptions are.” Many of the comments circle around assumptions of Rabia because of her refugee identity. She says a common perspective is that refugees are a burden. In comments sections, this often comes out in statements assuming she is taking someone else’s place at Cambridge, or receiving a free education. “A lot of this stems from ignorance and lack of education on refugee matters,” she claims. “I want to understand why people say these things, but I think many don’t understand international politics, why refugees are here, what jobs they did at home, etc.”
“It is extremely important to share more stories of refugees making a positive difference, to combat these misconceptions,” she argues. And the positive support she has received has also been significant. Many refugees have messaged her on the Internet and asked for her advice and wisdom, because they consider her to be a person of authority. Similarly, many total strangers defend her on comments sections, arguing against trolls and those who have negative or xenophobic responses to her story. “I’m proud that I’ve challenged some people’s perceptions of refugees and of what they can and can’t do. And I’m also proud of supporting others and helping them achieve,” she says, smiling. From our perspective, it is Cambridge and Lucy Cavendish that should feel proud to have such a stellar young woman within our communities.