Monday 09 October 2017
From refugee to PhD
An unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes due to war, persecution and poverty. We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record.
For many, the journey to find a safe haven from these injustices marks the ultimate in new beginnings.
Shqiperim Reka, a tourism management PhD alumnus at Sheffield Hallam University, began his new life in the UK after fleeing from war-torn Kosovo as a teenager. Now Shqiperim is using his experiences to try to transform people's perceptions of his home country.
Shqiperim arrived in Sheffield with his parents in 1999 aged 14 after the family fled his home country.
They faced a huge period of transition in a new country where they didn't speak the language but Shqiperim has fond memories of the help and support they received to help them integrate into Sheffield life.
He was taken to football matches, theatre shows and on visits to the Peak District, which perhaps subconsciously started his fascination with tourism, to help him understand the culture and offer shared experiences with local children.
Despite this support, school was a difficult time for Shqiperim due to language barriers and a culture clash with some of the local children.
After finishing school Shqiperim's parents encouraged him to do an IT course at college as they thought it would be 'a good career choice'.
But he soon realised this was not the career path for him.
While Shqiperim was on the cross-roads struggling to work out what direction to take, he spoke to a tourism lecturer at Sheffield College who convinced him to give the subject a go.
He relished studying the tourism industry and after spending two years completing a Foundation Degree at college he came to Hallam in 2008 as a Top-up student to achieve an honours degree in Tourism Management.
Little did he know this was to be the start of nearly ten years of study in the tourism department within Sheffield Business School.
Shqiperim explains: "It was such a milestone for me to get my degree. As soon as I started studying tourism I knew I had to use my past and my experiences as part of it.
"My dissertation looked at the image of Kosovo as a post war destination in 2009. Many people still thought the war was ongoing, even though it was 10 years after the war had ended. That left an impact on me and made me want to study more about Kosovo.
"I started to look at the challenges of tourism development for Kosovo for my Master's dissertation and I went back to carry out interviews there. I became more and more involved and interested in trying to get Kosovo portrayed in a positive light."
After passing his Master's with flying colours in 2011, he received the Best Postgraduate Student Award at Sheffield Hallam University by the Association of Tourism in Higher Education. Shqiperim was encouraged to continue his studies and to apply for a PhD scholarship.
He still remembers the phone call when he was told he'd got the scholarship and says he was in shock initially. "If Hallam was a less supportive institution, I don't think I would have got to this level.
"The members of staff here are incredible; they understood me and helped me get to the next level. I don’t think I would have had the courage or mental strength to convince myself that I could do a Master's or PhD without them.
"They understood my potential but also that I wasn't very confident at the time. They gave me the encouragement that I needed to cross the line."
Shqiperim's PhD thesis focused on tourism governance in post-war transition from socialism to democracy. He went to Kosovo for four months in 2013 to carry out his research.
Shqiperim says one of the main reasons he decided to do his research in Kosovo were his personal experiences of the war there and seeing what the people and country had gone through.
"In my culture we say a hedgehog always goes back to its hedge. So, Kosovo will always be my home that I love, associate myself with and visit regularly and the UK is my home that helped me to develop my life.
"I hope one day I can contribute towards Kosovo's development, maybe my research can inform policy and transform the way people think about the country."
He has just completed his PhD and says he feels he has now completed his journey by securing a job as a lecturer at Hallam.
He says his new role will allow him to give something back to the society that supported him and his people in their time of need.
"As a 14-year-old arriving here with no English, I went to secondary school for two years, then college before coming to Hallam nearly ten years ago now. I have grown up with Hallam so to get a permanent job as a lecturer at the university really feels like the end of the journey."
With Shqiperim's determination and new found confidence, this is surely only the start.