How Rudi Osman’s own journey inspired him to bring hope and opportunity to young refugees in Europe.
As a Syrian exile seeking to continue his higher education in France, 2022 Obama Foundation Europe Leader Rudi Osman quickly found that resources were scarce for refugees.
Staff and professors were not familiar with what students with refugee backgrounds needed, or how hard it was to access information on their rights. Rudi said his social worker told him he’d be better off working at a bar or restaurant instead of pursuing his education.
“I lost hope. It makes you feel like you are nothing, like you are just existing.”
But he didn’t give up. Rudi met a friend who would help him get accepted into one of the best law universities in France.
That’s when his focus shifted. Rudi saw the need to help exiled students after the difficulty of his own experience, so he created a solution. He founded the Union of Exiled Students (UEE) Opens in a new tab in 2018 to give access and opportunity to asylum seekers in France pursuing higher education.
“We decided that what we lived, nobody should live again,” he said.
We spoke with Rudi about his organization and the importance of democracy in his work ahead of his participation in the Copenhagen Democracy Summit. The summit will bring together 60 of our European leaders from June 8-11 to discuss our engagement in democratic institutions and the promise of the next generation of leaders to chart a better course.
For Rudi, the fight for democracy is a mission born from personal trials. In 2010, during the Arab Spring, the leader was arrested and tortured several times while fighting for democracy and justice in Syria. Then, as a refugee, he found himself fighting again to pursue his education. Rudi says he wanted his advocacy to give hope to others because he knew first hand what it felt like to lose it.
“We’re working to preserve democracy. We will build the democracy that all of us are dreaming about,” Osman said.
UEE provides information, training, and individual support to refugee students. Rudi says he’s proud that his work gives exiled students in France a voice to demand better living and academic conditions. He is even working with Ukrainian refugees.
He says a Facebook blast started it all.
“The first meeting of the Union of Exiled Students was only three people. The next Saturday it was 10 people, then it grew to more than 100 people. We explained to them that they have rights. We started telling them the difference between the educational systems in their countries and in France,” he said. “We work with them to write cover letters and academic CVs. If they didn’t speak French, we sought out French courses. Today, we’ve partnered with universities to offer 32 free French language programs for exiled and undocumented people.”
With the help of his organization, more than 700 students were admitted to French institutions and given additional benefits, such as language classes and access to mental health services.
Osman says the joy on each student’s face once accepted makes his work worthwhile. Students in the program range in age from 17 to 75.
“When they are crying, when they are happy, I feel that too. I remember the day that I got access to university. I was so happy,” he said. “It feels good to see people keep going in their studies and be successful…to see them become a doctor, become a teacher, become all the things they are looking for is what makes me happy.”
Rudi is a part of the Obama Foundation Leaders Europe program, a six-month, non-residential leadership development and civic engagement journey that seeks to inspire, empower, and connect emerging leaders from across the region. To learn more about the program, visit, https://www.obama.org/programs/leaders/europe/2022/.