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Iranian refugee couple graduate with DCU masters’ degrees on the same day

‘Education creates justice. If you just send rich people to university, and others have no access to education, it creates huge inequalities’

Five years ago, husband and wife Merhdad Lashgari and Elham Mohammadi were separated from one another when Lashgari fled his home in Iran and sought asylum in Ireland.

“That period of separation was so difficult,” recalls Mohammadi. “I was living with my family but being apart from my husband was tough. We didn’t know what would happen to us and it took two years to get back together. It was very stressful.”

The Iranian couple, who were reunited in 2021 when Mohammadi came to Ireland through family reunification, were speaking with The Irish Times on the day of their graduation as masters students from DCU.

Mohammadi, who came second in her class at DCU, was celebrating a first-class honours in her MSc in Bioprocess Engineering, while Lashgari graduated with a MSc in Climate Change: Policy, Media and Society.

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The opportunity to study at third level in Ireland, which was made possible through a Universities of Sanctuary scholarship scheme for refugees and asylum seekers, changed their lives, says the couple. Seven Irish universities are part of this initiative to increase engagement with people seeking international protection.

Both university graduates before coming to Ireland – Mohammadi in chemical engineering and Lashgari in art and design – they struggled to find work here and decided returning to full-time education would help them build a career in this country.

“The day I arrived here I started looking for opportunities to study,” says Lashgari. “The people in Ireland were very nice, the system was nice, but I also found out that if you’re a refugee with no background in this country, no education or job here, then you are nothing.”

“I’ve learned the word for this; people become marginalised. Education creates justice, it creates equal opportunities for everyone. If you just send rich people to university, and others have no access to education, it creates huge inequalities. And that’s dangerous.”

Attending university in Ireland also enabled the couple to speak freely and voice opinions without fear of repercussions. Lashgari, who was president of the students union at his university in Iran, recalls how students were treated as “terrorists” for criticising the status quo. “I know very well what it means to have freedom of speech. In Iran, if you’re in the student union, they follow you everywhere. In Ireland you can question everything and speak out in the classroom.”

Mohammadi, who has secured a job with a pharmaceutical company, says her studies in Ireland “opened doors”. “It’s very fulfilling after only two years here that I’m graduating. Women don’t have many rights in Iran but here I had the chance to study and now start my first job. My life has totally changed and that would have been impossible without the Universities of Sanctuary scheme.”

Lashgari also feels a huge sense of accomplishment at having completed a master’s degree through his fourth language – English. “We learn English in school in Iran but you never learn to a proper level. So my English wasn’t great when I arrived. But I’m bilingual in Farsi and Turkish and I studied German before so that helped a bit.” He often struggled with the terminology used in climate discussions at DCU, including the use of terms such as turf. “I knew the word bog but I’d never heard of turf,” he says with a chuckle. “That happened a lot.”

Lashgari, who wrote his thesis on attitudes to solar farms in rural Ireland, has been offered the opportunity to study for a PhD but wants to enter the job market “because it makes more sense financially”. He’s also part of a group that visits schools around the country speaking about global citizenship, human rights and climate issues.

“It’s been like a dream for me,” he says. “Many immigrants don’t get these opportunities and I hope speaking out will create motivation for others. Irish people are nice but no one will chase after you to help you. People have to want to improve their lives, and I want to help them do that.”

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