Posts Tagged University of Sheffield



Home to 80,000 people.  Intended as a temporary, transitory place, but evolving in to a long-term home for so many displaced by war.  It’s Jordan’s fourth biggest city.  Seen from above, as it is often is, to emphasise its sprawling scale, it’s easy to forget that in that city, as in any city, people are living their lives.


We use the refugee camp as a symbol of the challenge of mass migration, and of the desperate needs of those who live there.  The people who did, once, lead lives very much like our own, until war drove them out.  They were farmers, teachers, lawyers, engineers, nurses and builders.  They still can be.

Within the camp, babies are born, children grow up, people get sick, women have periods, all of the normal events of life take place here too.  All of these things present greater challenges when you’re living in a place that wasn’t intended to be a city, that was only meant to house you for a short time, until you could safely go home, or until some other place was found for you to move on to.

And so those agencies working within the camp are trying to address these everyday problems, to provide for health and education, to ensure access to basic facilities.  But this isn’t a one-way process.  Because to solve the everyday problems in the camp they are working with, and not just for, the people in the camp.

Obviously not everyone living there has the kind of skills that can be pressed into service to help build the resources that the communities need, and not everyone is well and strong enough after the physical and mental traumas of flight to contribute in this way.  But as a transit camp becomes a city the people living there can become again the people they were at home, can be part of the process of building and healing and problem-solving.


That’s what researchers from the University of Sheffield have found. The Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures is an ambitious and innovative collaboration between the University of Sheffield and the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment. Their sustainability research creates knowledge and connects it to policy debates on how to build a fairer world and save natural resources for future generations.

And under the auspices of the Grantham Centre, innovative solutions to everyday problems are being developed, in collaboration with the people of Zaatari.  Tony Ryan, the Director of the Centre, has been working with Helen Storey from the London College of Fashion, on resource use and repurposing in conflict zones, and on specific questions from the UNHCR about the design and manufacture of all kinds of things that we take for granted, like sanitary ware, make-up and bicycles.  Resources are scarce in the camp, where 80,000 people share 6 sq km of space, and nothing is left to waste.


One farmer collected pots of the salty local soil and washed it repeatedly till the salt crystals were cleared away, so that he could use it to grow herbs.  And polymer foams from old mattresses are being developed for use as artificial soil to grow crops.


Make no mistake, the people who end up in these camps face daily struggles that many of us cannot imagine.  But those I met embodied values that are often forgotten by those of us in more privileged parts of the world: an adaptable approach to solving problems, an aversion to waste, a sense of community.  As hard as we must fight to live in a world where no one is forced to flee their home, there is much we can learn from Syria’s refugees.

Tony Ryan, Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, University of Sheffield.


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The Big Walk

big walkLast week, two teams from the University of Sheffield set off, from Hornsea and Southport respectively, to walk over 120 miles on the Transpennine Trail.

The weather was not kind.  The terrain was tough going too. It tested them all, even the most experienced walkers amongst them.  Day after day, to get up and face a 20 mile walk, in boots that had barely had time to dry out from the previous day, on damaged feet. But for Tom Rhodes the Big Walk was ‘a chance to show that humanity and hope is stronger than fear, division and intolerance’.  Tony Strike spoke of his tears of relief when it was all over, at not putting boots on blistered feet, and commented, ‘Respect to refugees who have no choice and no home’.

Physicist Matthew Malek gives his account here, and explains why he undertook the challenge.

Last week, I participated in the University of Sheffield’s Big Walk — a long-distance hike for the purposes of aiding refugee students and academics. In total, there were 21 participants; we were divided into two teams and sent to opposite ends of the Trans Pennine Trail. After five days of hiking towards each other, we met in the middle on Thursday night, and then hiked the final miles back to Sheffield together on Friday. Each team walked over 120 miles, and we were joined by about 100 other people on the final day for the Big Walk One Day Challenge.

I am an experienced hiker, having previously completed the Hadrian’s Wall Path, a large portion of the Thames Path, and the National Three Peaks Challenge. However, the Big Walk involved six days of long distances, covering over 20 miles per day. This sort of sustained distance was new to me. It proved difficult at times, both for myself and for other members of my team — Team Hornsea. We looked out for each other, though, and always made sure everyone was okay.

A long walk like this is a challenge that is part physical and part mental. You need the physical stamina to cover great distances daily; you need the mental resolve to keep moving when the pain kicks in and things get tough. We endured blisters and bleeding feet; we endured heat rash and muscle pain. For me, the greatest challenge came towards the end of the fifth day; at about 110 miles in, my ankles incurred soft tissue damage, leaving me to walk the final 20 miles on Thursday night and all day Friday in significant amounts of pain. As I write this, my feet are bandaged and I am walking with a crutch for the next week or so until the damage has a chance to heal.

What gave us the strength to keep going under such conditions? The spirit of teamwork was strong, to be sure. However, the single greatest motivation was the cause itself, the reason that we had undertaken the Big Walk in the first place — the refugees.

Despite the troubles we encountered, our walk was a pleasant experience, full of camaraderie. On the walks, we enjoyed good company and conversation. Each night, we were able to rest in a warm bed after a hot meal. These are luxuries and privileges that refugees do not get. When we walked, we had not left behind everything — and everyone — that we had ever known. We did not walk out of fear for our lives. We did not walk in danger; we all knew how long the journey would be and that we would survive it. Most importantly, we knew that when we reached the end of the walk, there would be friends and family waiting to cheer for us, hug us, and welcome us home.

I wish every refugee could walk under such conditions. This is not the reality that they experience. After leaving their homes behind and completing long, dangerous journeys, the sad truth is that it is all too common for these people to meet nothing but hostility at the end of their travel. The sad truth is that they are more likely to be detained in camps whilst accused of being terrorists, or of stealing jobs and unemployment benefits. This is to the lasting shame of Europe and the United States. We can do better. We must do better.

When my walk became painful, this is where my thoughts turned. It gave me perspective and the willpower to keep placing one foot in front of the other. Whatever I was experiencing, I know that it was utter luxury compared to a refugee’s journey.

As a newcomer to Sheffield and to this University, I am pleased to have moved to the United Kingdom’s first City of Sanctuary. And I am proud to be a member of a University that would initiate such an event, giving 21 staff members a week of paid leave to support such an important cause. We have raised over £40,000 for refugees, and I hope that others will continue to send support through our JustGiving page.

My Big Walk was made by choice and it is now over. There are far too many who are forced to make walks, and that is a reality that we must work together to end.

Dr Matthew Malek

Lecturer in Physics & Astronomy, University of Sheffield


Funds raised through the Big Walk will be used to support refugee academics and students at the University, to demonstrate our solidarity with refugees and to show that refugees are welcome at our University and in our city. Our University is a University of Sanctuary and this has been our tradition since this institution was founded.

Funds raised through the Big Walk 2016 will be used in the following ways:

• Supporting at-risk academics: We have strong links with a number of programmes to support at-risk academics, including the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund and the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) –  a charity which helps academics in immediate danger, those forced into exile. Through these partnerships, the University of Sheffield can host academics, giving them a place of safety and the financial and practical help to continue their careers until such as time as they can return home.

• Students seeking refuge or asylum: The University offers fully funded undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships for refugees including those seeking asylum in the UK. Throughout 2016 we will be raising funds to increase this support.


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Reflections on the 24 Hour Inspire

How can I capture that 24 hours of inspiration that we shared last week?  I don’t want to forget anything, or anyone, who made it what it was.  I don’t want the sense of possibilities, of beginnings, of connections to be dulled by the everyday concerns that have had to now re-enter our lives.  I don’t want the elation to ebb away, because what happened really, profoundly, matters.  It has to be the start of something, and I believe it can be.

What follows is not a coherent account of the event – I’m not sure that I could provide that – but various sources that, taken together, I believe give a sense of what it was about, in all its rich variety.   I’ve drawn this from my own opening and closing words at the event, from emails, tweets, other bloggers.  There will be lots more to come, and whilst we want to continue celebrating and enjoying the event itself, we want to start asking where we go from here.  What’s next?


These are edited versions of my opening and closing words at the 24 Hour Inspire.

17.00 Thursday 28 February

Good evening everyone, and welcome to the 24 Hour Inspire, 24 hours of lectures presented by the charity Inspiration for Life, of which I am the Chair.    This event has been made possible by the generosity and enthusiasm of colleagues in all parts of the University, not just our speakers but also the buskers who’ll be entertaining you in the foyer, the wonderful people who’ve baked cakes for us to sell, the University services which have been made available to us without cost, and all the volunteers who will be here throughout the event to make sure it all runs smoothly.

Inspiration for Life was set up by Dr Tim Richardson, when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer last June, to promote lifelong learning and the public understanding of science, and to raise funds for cancer charities.  This is our first major event – when we started planning it we hoped that Tim would still be with us, but sadly he died on 5 February.  His family, friends and colleagues want this event to be a tribute to him, and a celebration of his life.

You may recall that back  in November 2011, Tim did 24 hours of lectures solo, to raise funds for Children in Need.  Tim’s heroic achievement is the inspiration for tonight’s event.  Tonight we have 42 speakers, from across and beyond the University presenting a wonderfully diverse range of talks, going through the night and up to 5 pm tomorrow.   We’re raising funds for two charities in particular, Weston Park Hospital Cancer Charity and Rotherham Hospice:

17.00 Friday 1 March

It’s been an amazing 24 hours.  We’ve raised funds for our charities, and we’ll be announcing the totals early next week.   The 24HrInspire hashtag has been all over the twittersphere, and the buzz has reached far further afield than we could ever have imagined – an email from Iran reached me last night, from someone who was a PhD in Sheffield, and who read about the event on the University website.  He translated this into Persian and has been circulating and web-blogging it amongst his colleagues and friends.  I won’t read his email in full, as I don’t think I could do so without losing it [see below for the full text] – but just one short quote: ‘When I imagine that in the middle of the night people have been gathered in the Hicks Building and sharing their ideas about various subjects, I believe that Dr Richardson’s dream to inspire people has come true’.

How wonderful that someone who wasn’t even here could sum up what’s happened so perfectly.  We’ve been entertained, informed and moved, we’ve eaten a lot of cake, and we’ve seen some eminent physicists in their pyjamas.  What more could you ask?  I think I can speak for everyone and say that we’ve been inspired.

As I said at the beginning – 24 hours ago, when I was a lot more coherent than I’m able to be now, as well as more fragrant, probably – this has all been for Tim.   Inspiration for Life is his vision, and we will do everything we can  to make it a reality.  He would have loved it all – the talks and the music, and above all the sense of the University not just as an institution or an organisation, but as a community coming together to do something wonderful.  This is just the start, and we will go on to do all sorts of things in the future, and in everything we do, we’ll be raising a glass to Tim, to say thanks, to say cheers, to say hello.


Blog by Chris Sexton, Director of Corporate Information & Computing Services, who gave the event tremendous support throughout


Storify Twitter feed from the #24HrInspire hashtag (thanks to Chris Sexton)


Email from Iran, 28 February 2013

Dear Catherine,

I have been PhD Student at the University of Sheffield from 2003 to 2006. I saw the news about 24 hours of nonstop lectures on the University Website, which I believe is being held right now.  I wish I was there to attend this inspiring event. However, my thought is with you all in Hicks Building, one of the first buildings that I visited at the university during my study time and I have a very clear picture of it in my mind.

Although I am not there at this moment, I have done a very small contribution to this event by translating the news of this remarkable event into Persian and sending it to a number of mailing lists in Iran and uploading it on a weblog to share this story with my colleagues and friends here.
I believe what Dr. Richardson has done is a wonderful and profoundly inspirational initiative, which I am sure will be a source of hope and courage for many people for a very long time. When I imagine that in the middle of the night people have been gathered in the Hicks Building and sharing their ideas about various subjects, I believe that Dr. Richardson’s dream to inspire people has come true.

Yazdan Mansourian, PhD, Associate Professor

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