Fulbright Features: Scholar getting firsthand knowledge of refugee research

Marina Burka hikes in Loch Lomond (about an hour from Glasgow, Scotland). Burka is spending the 2015–16 academic year in Glasgow, Scotland, as a Fulbright Scholar pursuing a master’s degree in human geography and volunteering with an activist organization that supports asylum-seekers and migrants in Scotland. Credit: Marina BurkaAll Rights Reserved.

Penn State students are traveling around the world to conduct research, teach English, attend master's degree programs and more as part of the Fulbright Program, a highly sought-after nine-month international educational exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State. This is part of a series of essays written by Penn State student Fulbright winners who have returned from or have just embarked on their trips. 

This year, 10 Penn State students received the prestigious scholarship. For more information about applying for the program, visit the University Fellowships Office’s website. Click here to read more Fulbright Features.


On my flight to Rome for the Easter holiday this year, I woke with my head pressed against the window and opened my eyes to an aerial view of the Mediterranean Sea. Even from 36,000 feet above sea level, I could see the white caps of waves far below, all the indication I needed that these were rough waters. In the distance, I saw one small boat bobbing up and down. I had no idea if it carried people or product, but my mind could not help but wander to the hundreds of thousands of people who have attempted the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, the deadliest migration route in the world, fleeing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Somalia and countless other places in the hopes of a safer life in Europe.

Within 15 minutes, we reached the other side, and I could see the Italian coast. It seemed a cruel irony that my journey over the Mediterranean was so short, so uneventful. Whereas I landed well rested and comfortable at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, the same cannot be said for those fleeing their homes in the hopes of arriving at the shores of Lampedusa, Lesvos, Chios and more.

Media coverage of the refugee crisis largely centers on this arrival part of the journey people take toward safer lives. It highlights the harrowing experiences people encounter and creates space for critical reflections on Europe’s response to refugees. For example, activists, NGOs and academics are voicing concern about the most recent response — the controversial EU-Turkey deal proposal that would see all migrants arriving in Greece returned to Turkey in exchange for a resettlement program directly from Turkey’s refugee camps, €6 billion in financial aid, and visa-free travel to the EU for Turkish citizens.

Although this is undeniably important, focusing solely on the arrival can overshadow another integral part of people’s experiences. My time as a Fulbright Scholar in the United Kingdom has shown me firsthand that refugees’ stories do not end with the physical crossing of the border.   

For the past seven months, I have lived in Glasgow, Scotland, while pursuing a master’s degree in human geography, continuing with the field of study I majored in at Penn State. While my research focuses specifically on changing immigration policy in the United Kingdom and how it will affect both British citizens and migrants, my day-to-day experiences encompass a broader picture of what it means to seek asylum in the U.K.  

In September, I started volunteering with the Unity Centre in Glasgow. We are an entirely volunteer-run activist organization that provides practical and emotional support and solidarity to all asylum-seekers and migrants in Scotland, as well as anyone in immigration detention centers throughout the U.K.  

In just six months of volunteering, I have witnessed how U.K. migration and asylum policy affects individual lives through the stories of people I’ve befriended at Unity. Asylum-seekers receive just £36 per week on a payment card that can only be used on certain items; The Guardian estimates a single person living in Britain needs to earn £127 per week (not including rent) to maintain a basic standard of living.

Additionally, the U.K. is one of the few countries in the world that does not have a time limit on immigrant detention; I know people from Unity who have been or are currently being held in detention for months, even years at a time. The U.K. also partakes in deportation charter flights, where people are removed en masse to countries including Nigeria, Ghana and Sri Lanka, sometimes while they still have active legal claims, a report by Corporate Watch found. These are just a few examples of the situations we encounter daily at Unity.

It is a weird, often uncomfortable position to be in when the very laws, the very government you are being critical of is the one funding you to be in the country in the first place. Yet this is not an issue isolated to the United Kingdom; migration and asylum policy throughout the world often fails the very people it purports to protect: migrants and asylum-seekers. Instead, policies and discourses of immigration work to maintain an “us” versus “them” mentality, shifting blame for other issues onto immigrants and refugees.

Though working at Unity in conjunction with my dissertation research can leave me emotionally drained and frustrated, these experiences also drive me to keep challenging unjust structural problems surrounding migration and asylum policy. To do so, I’ve realized throughout my Fulbright year the importance of having strong support networks of friends and colleagues in day-to-day life.

Those support networks are not created overnight. The Fulbright Program is quite different from studying abroad in that you are not surrounded by a group of Americans while living in a new country. Instead, after three days of orientation in London and meeting the rest of my cohort, I took the train up to Glasgow, arrived at my flat, and understood very clearly how alone I was. Yet just as I was told before leaving the U.S., and as I will tell others who leave the familiar for the unknown, this year has made me grow and reflect more than any experience I have had. This would not have been possible without experiencing and facing that isolation. I learned to be comfortable being alone while also compelling myself to seek new opportunities and forge new connections.

It takes a while to create a community for yourself and feel rooted in a new place, regardless if it is three hours or 3,000 miles away from where you used to live. But the relationships we maintain with family and old friends and those we form with new ones are what allow us to continue striving toward our goals, and what, in the end, makes it all worth it.

My Fulbright friends throughout the U.K., the friends I’ve made through my master’s program and volunteering at Unity, and the researchers and professors I work with through the Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network have made me feel rooted in this place I now call home. As I look to the future and the uncertainty it entails, I carry this lesson with me, always maintaining the goal of helping asylum-seekers, migrants and any newcomers feel welcome so they too may one day call a new and unfamiliar place “home.”

Last Updated May 12, 2016