Josiane Matar, SVR volunteer, interview with
Adrian Melendez, Founder and Director of Habesha Project
April 22, 2021
The Habesha Project, founded in 2015, is a civil society initiative aiming to provide complementary education pathways to refugees living outside of Mexico, such as Syrians. I interviewed Adrian Melendez, the founder and director of the Habesha Project, who says, “all of our work is around higher education and the possibility for refugees to access the system in Mexico.” The project has expanded throughout the years to reach a wider target audience including students from Latin America and Central America. In 2019, Habesha Americas was launched to provide assistance and scholarships for refugees and asylum seekers who are already in Mexico, often having fled from the Northern Triangle or Venezuela.
Drawing heavily from the World University Services Canada (WUSC) Student Refugee Program, Project Habesha is extremely comprehensive, intensively supporting beneficiaries over a five-year period. It provides all travel and visa requirements, intensive Spanish courses for one year before students begin their studies, then provides tuition fees, housing, a living allowance, and medical expenses.
This being said, Habesha’s work goes beyond offering financial support and scholarships to those in need; it also makes sure to provide extracurricular and social support to the beneficiaries. Mr. Melendez emphasized on the fact that they make sure to build a very special relationship with their students by offering them opportunities to integrate in the new environment and engage in community service. He referred to some workshops that they have organized for their students which included public speaking and leadership training, sexual abuse and harrasment awareness …. He also mentioned a small annual leadership summit that they usually organize similar to that hosted by WUSC.
When it comes to recruiting beneficiaries, Project Habesha takes into consideration the conditions that refugees often deal with. The organizers have adopted a flexible admissions approach since some of the refugees don’t have access to their legal documents and are unable to submit all the required documents.
Working with WUSC, Project Habesha has refined their recruitment process, using very similar selection criteria (e.g., age), interview process, and documentation requirements (birth certificate, high school diploma) as Canada. They ask for a cover letter, essay on a certain topic, and an optional letter of recommendation. But the most important criteria, according to Melendez, is the “proven desire to continue their higher education"…."We want to be that project to select those who wouldn’t otherwise be selected.” "We are looking for jewels in the middle of the desert, finding those rare persons who are special in some way.".
Structure and Impact
As for the bureaucratic and administrative dynamics, the Habesha project faces a shortage in funding and relies heavily on donations and volunteers to support its business model. They are a small team either working on a voluntary basis or in return for a very small remuneration. Despite the financial challenges, the Habesha Project managed to leave a great impact on the life of many refugees and expand its work throughout Latin America and the Meditterrenean. Mr. Melendez told me that it is really hard to measure the impact of this experience on the life of the beneficiaries as it is not quantifiable but rather impacts every aspect of their lives, “The experience is clearly life changing…it is very hard to measure the impact, once a person joins our program, their life will be changed forever also that of their families and their communities, since they would be able to give back. That is very clear, that is very evident.”
Good Practices and Overcoming Implementation Challenges
Based on my interview with Mr. Melendez, I‘ve identified the following good practices that members of the U.S. university community can potentially learn from:
Securing funding is a recurring challenge in this type of work, especially when it comes to financing scholarships. Habesha Project and Habesha Americas have overcome this challenge through their robust and growing network of partners, including universities. This initiative is funded through crowdfunding campaigns or by organizing fundraising activities and events. It is also supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), business partners, and philanthropic organizations. With support from the Canadian Embassy, they’ve built a national coalition of 21 public and private Mexican universities who have “the desire to reduce obstacles or barriers to higher education,” Melendez says. This shows the importance of networking and connections in this type of project. Due to limited financial resources, the Habesha projects negotiates with universities in order to waive their tuition fees (they sign an agreement with universities, where they commit to waive 100% of the university fees) and help them ensure education to their beneficiaries. Thus, gaining credibility is also a very important aspect in order to stay on good terms and keep trust with partner universities
Mr. Melendez argues that there is no excuse for any country, especially the U.S., not to engage in such projects. “Habesha Project is evidence that there is no excuse not to do it. We in Mexico are going through our own challenges in the country, with so many limitations, but despite that we are able to provide the most comprehensive program available out there, so what is the excuse for the US not to do so? Based on this….the change we see in the life of scholarship holders and the beneficiaries of our program make the entire program worth the hassle and all the effort.”
Meet SVR Volunteer, Josiane Matar
Josiane Matar, SVR Volunteer, Working group 1
Josiane Matar is a Lebanese- Cypriot recent graduate from Sciences Po - Paris. She has pursued her Master’s degree in International Public Management with emphasis on diplomacy and human rights. Josiane has a huge fascination with migration and refugee studies. She wrote her master’s thesis on the Syrian refugees in Lebanon and published several articles on the matter. She has also volunteered and conducted field research in several refugee camps across Lebanon. After graduating from Sciences Po, Josiane worked as a consultant for the research division at the UN International Organization for Migration assisting in the drafting of the upcoming World Migration Report