UC Irvine student spearheads first student-funded scholarship for refugees and asylum seekers

UC Irvine senior Iman Siddiqi created the University of California's first student-funded scholarship available to refugees and asylum seekers.
(Kevin Chang / Times Community News)

An encounter with Syrian refugees during a family trip to Turkey in 2014 inspired a UC Irvine senior to create the University of California’s first student-funded scholarship program for refugees and asylum seekers.

Iman Siddiqi, 20, raised a little over $93,000 for the program this month during a banquet at UCI.

“The best way for us to invest in the post-conflict development of war-torn countries and prevent a lost generation is by providing higher-education opportunities for displaced people,” said Siddiqi, a political science and global Middle East studies major.


It’s the first scholarship of its kind in the country, according to Karina Hamilton, who mentored Siddiqi through the fundraising project.

Hamilton is the director of the UCI Dalai Lama Scholarship, which Siddiqi was awarded in May. The scholarship is granted to students who propose a project related to peace, passion or ethics. Winners receive $10,000 for themselves and an additional $6,000 for their project.

Siddiqi’s project was the banquet for the refugee scholarship program. Her goal was to raise $100,000.

“This is the first time a student has proposed such an ambitious fundraising project,” Hamilton said. “When she first talked about it, we were wondering if she would be able to achieve the goal, which was extraordinary.”

Siddiqi said the next step is to create a committee to determine eligibility requirements and oversee the distribution of money to eligible students. Scholarships will be available by the 2019-20 academic year, she said.

Siddiqi said that upon returning from Turkey, she knew she wanted to help displaced students. To start, she enrolled in Arabic-language courses and practiced through online language learning apps, where she connected with Syrian students.

With support from Books Not Bombs, a nonprofit that encourages students to campaign for their universities to offer scholarships to Syrian students, Siddiqi authored a resolution in 2016 calling on UCI to create scholarship opportunities for students displaced by armed conflict.

The student government passed the resolution. But when Siddiqi asked the UC Board of Regents this year to join a network for such scholarships for Syrian students, board members were hesitant because of financial and political concerns, she said.

She then turned to the Dalai Lama Scholarship as a way to make the refugee scholarship happen.

“My initiative has shown me the impact of grassroots fundraising,” she said. “It was all family, friends, no crazy corporations or anything.”

Yama Ahmadi, an Afghan refugee attending Fullerton College, heard about the scholarship program through the Anaheim-based nonprofit Access California Services and is now a prospective applicant.

Ahmadi, 26, left his home country in 2014 after working with the U.S. Army for four years as a cultural advisor and interpreter. Because he worked with U.S. forces, it wasn’t safe for him to remain in his village, he said.

“As a refugee, it is not easy to find a scholarship program and get financial help,” Ahmadi said. “Most of the refugee students don’t have family support and they work for minimum wage, so with all the expenses of renting, clothing, food, it is impossible to pay for school. Iman made it so easy for us.”

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