I knew where Boris had just been because I’d followed his comments on social media. He’d been a guest of honour at the 2016 celebration of the foreign office’s own Chevening Scholars – a grand event with HRH Prince Charles also in attendance and lifelong supporter of international students, Lord Karan Bilimoria.
But what had really caught my attention was his fulsome praise for the contribution to the UK of international students. It struck a different tone to the one we’d got used to under prime minister Theresa May and the depressing absence of post-study work visas during her tenure. And he’d posed for a selfie with the scholars.
“He said welcoming scholars like the Cheveners was ‘the hallmark of a civilised society’”
Long ago I’d promised myself – in line with the spirit of the #WeAreInternational campaign – that if I was ever in a room with a government minister who took questions I’d be the first with my hand up to ask about international students and post-study work. I’d asked Greg Clarke, Jo Johnson, Chris Skidmore and James Brokenshire who’d all helpfully confirmed the importance of international students to the UK. Now here was a chance to add the foreign secretary to that list.
So I approached Boris who was happy to be interrupted as he walked across the park back to the foreign office and thanked him for what he’d said to the Chevening scholars – I also urged him to press for post-study work visas.
I remember what he said exactly. He said welcoming scholars like the Cheveners was ‘the hallmark of a civilised society’.
Which is why when at the end of August this year, as I realised Chevening scholars were trying to secure visas to leave a now increasingly dangerous Afghanistan, I remembered the words of our now prime minister. I thought he might be an ally who could break a seeming stalemate between different parts of government at a moment when there was no time to be lost.
And whatever I think of the rest of his politics, Boris Johnson didn’t disappoint on this. My journalist friend Harry Horton messaged me to say Boris had told a Sky News press conference that visas for Chevening scholars would be fast tracked. His comments were on tape. It was life-changing and life-saving.
The story of how the 2021 Afghan Chevening scholars made it out of Afghanistan is chilling, worthy of a movie. As they moved through the horrors of the airport perimeter, their arms linked around vulnerable dependents until they were hauled to safety by British soldiers, I was picking up messages from scholars on my phone. I was not the only one of the many doing all in their power to speed their escape to be moved to tears by the image of them finally safe and on the last flights out of Kabul.
But the story didn’t end when the Taliban entered the city. The Chevening Scholars have a saying: “Scholar for a year, Chevener for life.”
This motto is now being put to the test as never before. Desperate Chevening alumni were heartened by messages from the UK which said Chevening scholars and alumni would be in a priority group for access to the UK, vital due to their close links to the UK government which had selected them. But then the official assurances went quiet. The alumni worried and those questioning the terms of the scheme became concerned Chevening alumni may not longer be considered eligible.
Which is why the Afghan Chevening Alumni have this week written an open letter to prime minister Boris Johnson seeking his support – some of them in the room with him at that celebration event on a beautiful sunny day in London back in 2016 when the current crisis was so far from anyone’s imagination.
My own fervent hope is that the prime minister and British government will honour the spirit of lifelong support for the scholars they themselves selected, who are brimming with talent but at risk by association. Today at the Conservative Party conference he spoke about welcome for Afghan refugees, as the descendent of someone who had been given asylum in the UK and of the country as a “beacon of hope and light”.
This Friday I will have the great pleasure of meeting the family of a 2021 Chevening scholar in their temporary accommodation in London – people who have inspired me with their courage, deep love of education and determination to use it for good. One day I hope to meet the alumni who are now desperately waiting for news and a signal of help.
When Secretaries of State host high level foreign delegations at Chevening House, it would be wonderful to know that we had not closed the door to the scholars who bear that name at their time of greatest need.
If we want to show the best face of Global Britain to the world, we could do a lot worse than showing our welcome and humanity to these talented scholars at risk.
About the author: Ruth Arnold was a co-founder of the #WeAreInternational campaign and chosen to receive the 2020 Outstanding Contribution to the Industry PIEoneer Award.