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Meet the Congolese ex-asylum seeker elected to lead a Scottish university

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Debora Kayembe sought asylum in the UK and settled in Scotland a decade ago
Debora Kayembe sought asylum in the UK and settled in Scotland a decade ago   -   Copyright  AFP
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With a history stretching back more than four centuries, the University of Edinburgh is already one of the oldest in Scotland and the English-speaking world.

Next month, it will make history yet again — by appointing a former refugee as its rector.

The election of human rights lawyer Debora Kayembe, who came to the UK from the Democratic Republic of Congo 16 years ago, was confirmed earlier this month.

She will take up the role, which places her at the top of the university's governing body, on March 1.

"It is something in my life I never imagined would happen to me," she said. "I never went to look for it, it came into a plate."

But the reaction has been like a "rollercoaster", she adds, particularly in her native Congo: "There is a sentiment of national pride and they are waiting for the inaugural ceremony to come to Scotland to see that with their own eyes."

Kayembe was born in Kinshasa and raised by a doctor.

A lawyer by training, she joined the Congolese Bar Association in 2000 but fled the country five years later after learning a militia group that she helped expose for its gun-running activities wanted to kill her.

She was granted asylum in Britain and a decade ago moved to Scotland.

But life in her adoptive country did not always offer refuge.

Last year, she made Scottish headlines for her tolerant response after being a target of racism.

Kayembe was driving to a meeting when her car lost control and veered violently off the road. When she inspected the vehicle, she found that nails had been driven through all of her tyres.

"The previous times I had kept quiet," she said.

"Sometimes you have to have a big heart to let things pass in the common interest, but what happened to me that day was unacceptable."

Months before the nomination came, Kayembe had found herself embroiled in a conflict that she had initially wanted to avoid.

She had been a target of racism before in Scotland.

But the abuse came to a head in June last year as anti-racism protests erupted around the world after the death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in US police custody.

Some weeks later, Kayembe's daughter returned home from school and cried because she had been asked by a teacher to perform a slave dance in front of her classmates.

After confronting the school, Kayembe petitioned the Scottish Parliament to urgently address racism in education in Scotland.

Parliament has agreed to the request and will debate the matter in the coming months.

It was Kayembe's message of dialogue and tolerance that caught the attention of the University of Edinburgh, which counts prime ministers, Nobel laureates and Olympians among its alumni.

"They said as the rector of the university, your message will go far and the whole world will listen," she said.

Previous rectors at the University of Edinburgh included people who went on to become prime ministers, like Winston Churchill and Gordon Brown.

Brown was still a student when he became rector at the age of 21.

As their successor, Kayembe is only the third woman and first black person in the role.