We are delighted to share the news that Migrants Organise CEO Zrinka Bralo has received an honorary doctorate from the University of Exeter. This award is a recognition of Zrinka’s contribution to campaigns for migrant and refugee rights, dignity and justice since 1993 when she became a refugee from besieged Sarajevo. Since joining Migrants Organise in 2001, Zrinka has participated in and co-created organised campaigns, actions, and support programmes that positively impacted the lives of thousands of people. She secured resources and built infrastructure for the growth and development of Migrants Organise and many grassroots organisations facing numerous challenges and an increasingly hostile environment. Her leadership was recognised by the Voices of Courage Award by the Women’s Refugee Commission in New York in 2011, of which she was a trustee for a decade and is now a Commissioner.
Zrinka said that it made it even more special to receive this recognition at the time Exeter University joined the Sanctuary Scholarship scheme for refugees and people seeking asylum. It is also very exciting to become Exeter University alumni at the same time as so many remarkable people such as Stormzy and author Kamila Shamsie, who recently delivered a lecture From Go Home Vans to Rwanda Plan: A Decade of the Hostile Environment immigration policy as part of Solidarity Knows No Borders Week of Action.
In her acceptance speech (below), Zrinka said:
I accept this honour as a recognition of, and in solidarity with, my migrant and refugee community, whose enduring belief in and the quest for dignity and justice for all continue to inspire me, teach me resilience and make me want to be a better and more courageous person.
Zrinka’s Honorary Doctorate Acceptance Speech
“Vice-Chancellor, Provost, fellow graduates and graduands, ladies and gentlemen, I am incredibly honoured and grateful to be here today to receive an honorary degree.
It is even more meaningful to receive it from this wonderful community during the week we are marking the anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention and on Windrush Day.
I am delighted to be back in Exeter and have an excuse to keep returning to one of the best universities in the country and the world. Congratulations to all of you who received degrees you worked very hard for under exceptionally challenging circumstances.
I still remember my graduation ceremony several decades ago. I have a record of it on VHS tape. I have dated myself now. But, whenever someone asks me where I am from or where I am REALLY from – I happily admit that I am from the 80s.
There is something else I wanted to share today, which I brought from my education in the 80’ – a bit of ancient wisdom in Latin. Omnia Mea Mecum Porto – All that is mine I carry with me.
As far as I know, attributed to one of the seven sages, Bias of Priene, during the flight from his hometown.
I used to push back and rebel against my parents’ pressure to study, especially when they argued that it was for my own good. But it turns out they were right. Education saved my life.
As I was about to board the Hercules plane to escape from war-torn Sarajevo in 1993, as I stepped into the unknown, I clung on to the reassuring sound of that ancient wisdom in my head.
I could only take one bag with me. And it was filled with the essentials – a photo album, the dictionary, and a few books: the history of philosophy, das Kapital (1948 edition), and Dialectic of Enlightenment by Adorno and Horkheimer, as a reminder that education is all about enlightenment.
I also carried with me a lot of sadness and grief. The survivors’ guilt drove me to do something useful after escaping the war. In addition to working with refugees, I got a scholarship to do a postgraduate degree at the LSE.
The war was still going on, and it was a difficult time, but I was not exceptional; all my friends did the same; it was our way of fighting back. Education helped us better ourselves, and it was a way of giving something back to our new home and our country of origin.
As they say in life, timing is everything. Thirty years ago, refugees like me were able to work and study. But if I were to arrive and seek protection now, I would not be allowed to do any of it. I would be stuck in this limbo for years, lonely and isolated, in my trauma and grief.
Even if you tried, you would not have been able to miss the fall of Kabul, the attack on Ukraine and the forced movement of people running for their lives. But you might have missed the UN announcement that we now have 100 million refugees worldwide.
A week ago, the news was about deportations to Rwanda for those arriving on our shores seeking protection. Their claims were not accepted or heard because of their clandestine mode of entry.
Our immigration policy is called the Hostile Environment policy, so named by the government, and this so-called plan to send people to Rwanda is part of it.
But something very unique happened last week. Campaigners, lawyers, trade unions, the UN, civil society groups, faith leaders, royals, artists and members of the public all spoke out against this cruel policy. Together through dramatic legal and collective direct action, we managed to stop the flight. For now!
This is not just compassion or empathy; as crucial as these are, this is about the common good – it is about the protection of the fundamental principles of our society – democracy, the rule of law, due process, freedom, dignity and justice.
I firmly believe that when we are protecting the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised, we are protecting the rights of all of us. I accept this honour as a recognition of, and in solidarity with, my migrant and refugee community, whose enduring belief in and the quest for dignity and justice for all continue to inspire me, teach me resilience and make me want to be a better and more courageous person. I used to say jokingly that I have a PhD in being a refugee.
And now I do. Thank you for making that happen.”