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17th December 2015

Ph.D. student committed to supporting refugees graduates

Aala El-Khani has been working on her psychology Ph.D. for four years, a project that has helped thousands gain valuable parenting guidance

A psychology Ph.D. student who has dedicated her work to helping Syrian families fleeing conflict will graduate this week, as well as receiving a prestigious prize for achievement.

Aala El-Khani began her Ph.D. just before the crisis arose in Syria in 2011. After witnessing the situation, with families being displaced in great number, she took the unexpected move to change her thesis subject.

On Friday she will reach the end of this project, receiving her qualification from the university, but will continue to work to improve the situation that many fleeing war face. Aala will receive the Sue Fielder Memorial Award for outstanding academic achievement at the ceremony.

El-Khani visited camps in Syria and Turkey and witnessed that parenting guidance was desperately needed by the refugees she met there. She then, with financial support from the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), created a system to provide leaflets offering parenting advice within the bread parcels distributed in camps.

3,000 leaflets were distributed over a matter of days, and the response rate was almost two-thirds. Now it is being translated into different languages with the possibility of being used across Europe.

“I initially started my Ph.D. on a different topic, but as the events in Syria unfolded, and with my background in parent training, as well as having two young children myself, I began to wonder what it must be like to parent children in war and refugee situations and how families in that context could be supported through training and advice,” said Aala.

“My supervisor, Professor Rachel Calam was incredibly supportive, even though changing your Ph.D. subject is quite an unusual thing to do. Her attitude was, ‘If that’s what you want to do, and it means so much to you, then let’s do it’ and this is the kind of support I have had throughout my Ph.D. from my supervisory team.”

Professor Rachel Calam, Head of the School of Psychological Sciences, said: “Working with Aala is an inspiration. She shows how much can be achieved when you work with both your heart and mind.

“Her research has highlighted the psychological needs of children and families fleeing conflict, and created new ways of offering help. Her work is already recognised as being of international importance, a tremendous achievement for a Ph.D. student.”

Aala also worked with refugees who ended up in Manchester, putting on an exhibition of artwork by children living in camps, and creating a short film, Departing: Arrivals, documenting refugee parents talking about their journeys to the UK.

Departing:Arrivals from Hafsah Naib on Vimeo.

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