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Life lessons: What we've learned about finding the right school for us


Hassam Al Khawam
Hassam Al Khawam
Dylan Boyd
Philomena Mongan

Belfast Met has a comprehensive social inclusion policy to cater for its diverse range of students and has recently been recognised as Northern Ireland’s first college of Sanctuary. We talk to a Syrian refugee who wants to use his engineering skills in NI once qualified, a mum from the Traveller community studying to become a solicitor and a non-binary student who is helping to create a more inclusive society for people here.

‘There was bombing going on when I was at school in Syria, now I want to help build in NI because it has helped me'

Hassam Al Khawam (22) had to leave his native Syria with his family for Jordan in 2013 due to the war. His family were granted refugee status and rehomed in Craigavon in 2017. He is now an ESOL student at the Belfast Met. He says:

I had completed my first year of a Level 5 course in Construction Engineering in the Built Environment with the Al Quds (Luminous Technical College) in Jordan. There was bombing going on when I was in year nine at school in Syria. We could hear the fighting going on between the two opposing sides during an exam.

It was horrible and stopped me achieving things. My family and two others had to leave Syria for Jordan. It wasn't easy to study there as my father is elderly and I had to work. I'm the eldest boy, so I had to do many jobs - I was a waiter, a housekeeper… so many I can hardly remember.

In Syria, it was easy, all I had to do there was study, but in Jordan I had to fit my studies around several jobs.

My family came to the UK through the Home Office Resettlement Scheme as refugees due to the health of my parents and I am the main hope for the family's sustainable future success.

Seeing my beautiful hometown of Damascus being destroyed by the war and the extensive, devastating effects it had on the urban structures of my country only strengthens my desire to make my engineering dream a reality.

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I arrived here with no English, so a group in Lurgan helped me with classes. I learned how to say, 'how are you today?', but people here don't say that. They say, 'What's the craic?' It was hard for me to learn a new language, but I'm working hard to improve it, so that I can go to university. That's my dream.

My first year in college in Jordan is equivalent to A-levels and my determination to speak English has let me progress to an IELTS Level 1 preparation course at Belfast Met.

In June last year, I joined Belfast Met's Futures Project, which is an exciting youth work partnership between Belfast Met, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and Start360. It lasts for six months and I spend four days a week there - with the fourth day a bespoke vocational ESOL class.

We also cover personal development, good relations and awareness of diversity in Northern Ireland, citizenship and employment.

I feel included and welcome especially at Belfast Met.

The people in Northern Ireland have only shown me kindness. It is a beautiful country - except for the weather.

The college staff have also helped me with all aspects of my life, not just my education, but things like housing, too.

My family came here looking for a safe place and we found it.

I am living my best life here in Northern Ireland and everyone around me is friendly. Now I'm confident I'm going to have a good life and achieve my goals.

I grew up wanting to be an engineer. I love having the vision and abilities to create something and turn the finished idea into a building - that excites and inspires me.

I need to improve my English and communication skills to do a civil engineering degree and have applied to five different universities, including Queen's in Belfast and the Ulster University.

My English is now good enough to allow me to do the IELTS academic exam with Queen's this month.

While I love my home city, if Northern Ireland helps me to achieve my goals, then this is where I will stay. I will help to build in this country because it has supported me. I will do my best here.

It's a beautiful country and my plan is to make it better in the future by creating new things."

'I left school at 12 because I was a Traveller, but after having five children I want to study to become a solicitor’

Philomena Mongan

Philomena Mongan (27) was born in the Traveller community, living on a camp site until she was nine. She now lives in west Belfast with her four daughters, Maggie (10), twins Donna and Sophie (9), from her marriage, and Princess (2), from a new relationship. She is studying a Skills for Industry - OCN Level 1 Business Administration at Belfast Met's Girdwood Campus. She says:

I left school at 12 because I was a Traveller - while I didn't want to leave, my sister needed help with her young family. I enjoyed maths at school, doing sums kept my brain ticking over. For the first half of my life, I wanted to be a midwife because I thought it was amazing what the body could do.

I was married at 16 and had my first baby a year later, which is part of the culture in the Traveller community. When my five-year marriage ended, I moved to a house in west Belfast with my three children.

I've had five children - my four girls and a son, who passed away. My little boy had a rare blood condition, MPS. Despite receiving a bone marrow transplant in Manchester, I lost him when he was nine months old.

The loss of my son was so heart-breaking, I returned to the Traveller community because I thought it might help me. There I met a woman called Susan, who encouraged me to get involved in an arts group. But I was very, very low at the time and decided I didn't want to be a Traveller anymore.

Meeting Susan opened doors for me and I signed up for a business administration course at Belfast Met. I also take Essential Skills courses in English, Maths and ICT.

I love coming to college and the tutors here are always encouraging and have helped me get my confidence back. As a mum of four, the course is really flexible and works round school runs and day care. Now my confidence has been raised.

My experience at school was always negative - I was a chubby child and sat at the back of the classroom because I was afraid of being bullied.

And when I left school, I didn't have the confidence to study until I began my courses here.

My girls are all in primary school now. My eldest girl came home from school the other day and told me she is doing her transfer test for grammar school and I was so proud.

I really don't care what people say about me about being from the Traveller community. If anyone is negative to me, I always try to be positive.

I've always wanted the best for myself and my children. While I'm no longer living in the Traveller community, I still do my gypsy duties and look after my mum - I would never not do that.

While I'm no longer living in the community I grew up in, I still have Traveller friends.

My plan is to study criminology and be a solicitor. Having left education at an early age, getting an opportunity to do this course will help me achieve my dreams.

I hope the next generation of young women will be inspired by what I'm doing. When my son died, I was depressed, but decided to do something for my children.

When my daughter told me she was doing the transfer test, I was so happy - I believe it's my son helping me. I got the son I always wanted and that's the way I think about it.

I've shocked myself how clever I am in college. Now I have my confidence back, having been through so much in life.

I'm loving the experience at Belfast Met; it keeps me focused with a regular routine, which works around my children. I love talking to other people and have also joined the gym at Girdwood. The course is an amazing opportunity for adults who have never experienced education.

I appreciate I have a long way to go, but I won't know if I can succeed unless I work hard."

‘My experience was negative in the past ... but now I work with the college and give advice on issues affecting my community’

Dylan Boyd

Dylan Boyd (22) from Belfast is a non-binary student and is currently taking part in an HND IT course at Belfast Met. They say:

I left school at 18 after completing four A-levels and then spent the next year at Doane Stuart School in New York State after winning a scholarship. It's a small, private school - very expensive - with a strong community of trans students aged from five up to 19. I identify as a queer and it was a fantastic opportunity for me to go there as someone from a background which wasn't well-equipped to deal with trans and queer student issues.

I went to an integrated primary school, but at secondary school, there were questions raised about my mental health issues. After three years, I had to leave for the sake of my health due to bullying. It became so unbelievably bad, I had to leave the school because I thought I was going to die. It was a really difficult time for me in terms of my mental health.

I moved to an integrated secondary school, which was better, but not necessarily accepting, but I was able to focus on my education and keep my head down. I didn't know anyone, but it was tolerable. I just went to school and got on with the work.

There was a wonderful lesbian student there and we started up a Gay Straight Alliance to provide information in the library.

I was getting ready to do a course in economics at Queen's University Belfast when I was accepted for the Doane Stuart School in New York State. The scheme covered the course fees and accommodation and it was so different to my experience here, which was so negative. After that, I took three years out of education and just wanted to find a job to sustain me. I worked in hospitality and retail - entry-level jobs - but it wasn't working. I wasn't getting anywhere.

My identity was okay at work, as long as everyone could treat it as a joke. But there was no-one for me to talk to if I tried to communicate that I was uncomfortable. Work was a very difficult environment. My friends convinced me to go back into education.

That's when I found out about the IT course here on coding, which is one of the most advanced.

I didn't think somewhere like the Met was where I'd find a community like me, but I was really surprised. The reception I've had here and the opportunities to get involved in LGBT plus advocacy is good.

The Met is willing to listen to someone like me and now I work alongside the college to provide advice and advocacy on issues which affect my community.

I'm the equality officer on the student council, which enables me to bridge the gap between the students, the staff and the faculty.

There is a pretty robust policy in place for trans students, which helps people feel accepted and supported. I've worked with the college to communicate issues important to my community, such as getting pronouns right on forms, period poverty and more.

The majority of trans students end up in a place like the Met because their experience of secondary education is so negative. That's why it's important they have a policy in place. In terms of negotiating, it's mostly about good communication.

Schools here need to do more and we are working with the teaching unions, who need to have their first elected trans officer, so there is more information available.

The fact the Met is willing to listen and take others ideas on board makes an accepting environment.

Because I've been involved in the advocacy relations campaign here, I could see myself doing this as a career.

For more information about courses, go to or visit the Belfast Met Open Day on June 18 from 3pm-7pm at the Millfield Campus

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