From Libya to London: Zoha's journey to UCL

19 April 2022

Refugees and asylum seekers can face additional obstacles to gaining a place at university, but there is lots of support available to you at UCL. UCL student Zoha talks about her experience.

Person sitting on a wooden bridge looking out to water and mountains
"You may be the only person left who believes in you, but its enough. It takes just one star to pierce a universe of darkness. Never give up" - Richelle E. Goodrich

If I could advise my younger self something today, it would be this: never give up! Keep trying and pushing and struggling, even if you don’t know what your goal is or why you would want to achieve it. There are times when you think everything is going to be alright, and it can all shatter in seconds. There will be obstacles in your path in the form of tests, people discouraging you or things getting in the way, yet the thing you can do for yourself is to keep going.  

Born and raised in Libya, having escaped war with qualifications not accepted in the UK, the only thing that had kept me going was my parents and the bond I had with them. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t even know if I’d be alive. Being an asylum seeker/refugee is not an easy task. You start from zero, get set back, there are limited in opportunities and you have to pause most things you want to do such as working and learning to drive. I was unable to do GCSEs at school, so I studied Maths and English at the same time as doing my Level 2 and 3 qualifications at college. I was unable to apply for student loans, so the only way for me to study at university was through scholarships. I was demoralised by rejection from some UK universities, and further pushed down by my tutor at college, discouraging me from applying from the more competitive universities as it would be so hard to get a place.

I remember lying on my dad’s lap and crying, feeling like my year had been wasted once again. “One more try”, he said, and if you fail again “we will try again”. This third try got me into UCL with an Access Opportunity Scholarship. This is when I started believing that failure can indeed lead to success.

Studying Cancer Biomedicine at UCL, one of the world’s top universities with its support systems, clubs and societies is more than I could have ever asked for. I’ve been able to take advantage of the opportunities here, including kickboxing and horse-riding. I couldn’t be happier with the new friends I’ve made and the work that I've put into studying and enjoying my life here.  I still can't quite believe that by the end of this summer I’ll be a UCL graduate.

We are born with the instinct not to give up. As babies, we cry and scream until we get what we want, but with the world being so harsh, somewhere along the line that ability is lost. For instance, if you to to the gym, you work out, you come back and look in the mirror you will see nothing. If you go to the gym the next day, you come back and look in the mirror you will see nothing. Clearly there are no results, can’t be measured, it must not be effective, so you quit! It’s not about the events, it’s about the intensity, it’s about consistency, right? Or for instance, you go to the dentist twice a year, your teeth will fall out. You’ve got to brush your teeth every day for two minutes. What does brushing twice a day for two minutes do? Nothing! Unless you do it every day twice a day for two minutes. It’s the consistency, just like going to the gym for nine hours will NOT get you into shape but working out every day for 20 minutes will help you be active.

Don’t quit: keep going pushing and scraping and clawing and begging. Even in your dreams, don’t give up. Eventually, all the hard work and determination will pay off. The people who discouraged you, breaking your heart shattering in more than a billion pieces will claim to love your vision and will come back to you. Jump out of the car and run into the woods. Keep running, just never give up! No matter how hard life gets, always remember… there is a past version of yourself that is proud of how far you’ve come.

UCL provides specific support for refugees and asylum seekers. Find out how you can access support and get in touch.

Zoha Naeem, Cancer Biomedicine BSc