'When I walked into King's, I instantly thought "this is where I want to be"'Shaimerden Abekov

“Hi, my name is Shaimerden Almazbekovich Abekov and I am a refugee. My father is in prison for a crime he did not commit. My family was persecuted and had to leave everything we had behind. I moved to the UK at the age of 12 without being able to speak fluent English. We lived on benefits for several years. I am now studying Engineering at the University of Cambridge.”

This is never how I introduce myself.

I figured out early on that talking about my past is a conversation killer. If I wanted all the fun and jokes in the room to end and for everyone to start feeling sorry for me, I’d drop the refugee bomb. But I never did. I don’t talk about it much during first encounters. When I’m asked about it, I always try to miss out as many details as I can so that the other person has fewer opportunities to grab onto something I say and pry further. When it comes to answering questions like ‘where are you from?’, ‘what do your parents do?’, or ‘why did you come to the UK?’, a first conversation goes something like this:

“Hi, my name is Sham, I’m from Barnsley. My father is a radio engineer. My family moved to the UK for…work… when I was 12. I am now studying Engineering at the University of Cambridge.”

"Understanding racial insults was easy."

Answering these questions is straightforward for a lot of people; it is something I always dread. I don’t want to lie, but at the same time I really don’t want to answer them completely truthfully. That would only lead to more questions, dragging us down the rabbit hole of my past, and I don’t want that. I’m sure the person I’ve just met doesn’t want that. I’m sure you don’t either.

That’s why this article isn’t about why I came to the UK. This article is about Cambridge. This article is about people like me.

I remember the first time I came to Cambridge. Through my Sixth Form, I found out about the Cambridge Shadowing Scheme, where Year 12 students get to stay at Cambridge, go to subject lectures and social events, and experience the student life. For free. For three days. That sounded too good to be true. I managed to get a place on the scheme and, on 26 January 2017, I arrived in Cambridge! I sent a picture of Peterhouse, where I was staying, on my family group chat and immediately got a call from my cousin halfway across the globe.

“Did you get into Cambridge?!” he asked excitedly.

“No, no, I’m just staying here for 3 days”, I replied.

“No way, that’s so huge! You’re in CAMBRIDGE!” he said

Other family members also expressed how amazing it was that I was there in the mythical Cambridge we’d heard so much about. I hadn’t even gotten into Cambridge yet – I was just a glorified tourist – but the mere fact that I was there made my family and I so happy and excited.

Cambridge was something my mother used to joke about after we came to the UK: “If you study hard at school, you will go to a good university. Since we’re in the UK, maybe even Oxford or Cambridge.” I would laugh at the mention of ‘Oxford or Cambridge’. Yeah, right, like I was ever going there!

The photo Shaimerden sent to his family the first time he stayed in CambridgeShaimerden Abekov

The school I went to didn’t even want to take me in at first. Maybe all they saw was some immigrant kid who couldn’t speak fluent English. Maybe they thought that trying to teach me anything would be too much of a hassle. Maybe they thought that since I was an immigrant, I was uneducated and didn’t know anything. Until the end of high school, all my predicted grades were Fs because I never took the SATs, and my lack of English fluency made talking to other kids difficult. Understanding jokes was hard.

Understanding racial insults was easy.

"If you think that Cambridge can’t be for someone like you, know that it can be"

Being on free school meals really helped my family financially; the UK’s benefits system helped even more. I always wanted to go on cool school trips, have the latest gaming console and mobile phone, like the others, but then seeing the price tag brought me back to reality. What I really wanted was to have my whole family living with me. Hell, I wanted them to at least live in the same country so that I wouldn’t have to grow up just occasionally seeing my relatives on a computer screen. I wanted to go home. I wanted to see my dad.

What I didn’t realise I wanted was getting into Cambridge. I didn’t think I even had a slight chance. Yet here I am.

If any part of this article resonates with you, if you have shared any of my experiences, if you think that Cambridge can’t be for someone like you, know that it can be. It’s not just a passing joke or a silly dream. It happened for me.

If my example alone isn’t enough, know that I’m not the only one. In October 2019, there were 10 students with UK refugee status studying at Cambridge, and several more from outside the UK. I know it’s a very small number, but if we made it, you can too.


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