Custom House former child refugee in bid to raise £45k to secure place at Ivy League university

Iranga Tcheko is hoping to raise £45,000 after being offered a place to study at Columbia University

Iranga Tcheko is hoping to raise £45,000 after being offered a place to study at Columbia University in New York and at the London School of Economics. Picture: Rachael Baskeyfield - Credit: Archant

A former child refugee is appealing for donations to help secure her place studying at two top universities.

Iranga Tcheko was a toddler when she arrived in Newham with her mother after fleeing war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1999.

Though just four years old at the time, Iranga remembers hiding under a bed as gun shots rang out and being carried on people’s backs out of her home city of Bukavu in a rush to escape the conflict.

“I remember the interruption. Then having to leave very quickly. But it was a nice place. Then when war came we had to be uprooted. That’s why I was used to moving around in Newham,” Iranga said.

When Iranga, now 25, arrived in the borough she and her mum lived in a studio flat in Forest Gate, though she now lives in Custom House where 23 per cent of children live in low income families, according to government data.

This, however, is not stopping her from getting to where she wants to be. She has completed a degree in history and politics at Warwick University, founded the Warwick Africa Summit and debated in the House of Lords.

After an internship at the Smithsonian museum in Washington DC, Iranga gained a place on an international and world history master’s degree course at Columbia University and the London School of Economics.

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“Your background should not stop you from achieving your potential. I know what it is to struggle to get to where you want to be,” Iranga said.

But the former Kingsford Community School pupil has to raise £45,000 to pay her fees and cover living expenses even after 50 per cent of the total cost of the course was waived.

Iranga has now launched a JustGiving appeal to keep her dream alive but has just six weeks to raise enough money to prove there is enough to secure her place on the course and her study visa.

On her choice of course, Iranga said: “What is really important for me is to get global experience, a lot of the material I need is in the States. The opportunity to go to an Ivy League university doesn’t come around that often.

“I don’t want to be held back by where I come from.”

Iranga, who also speaks Swahili, aims to improve her French and Spanish as part of her studies in order to speak directly to those she wants to interview as part of her plan to research gender and the personal histories of people whose stories are “at the margins” of attention.

“People from disadvantaged communities don’t have written records, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have histories to share.

“I hope to empower people to get their stories heard,” Iranga said.

In particular, Iranga is interested in interviewing people who took part in exchanges between the USA and the USSR during the Cold War.

It follows studies at Warwick which involved interviewing her grandmother Josephine who lived in the central African country when it was a Belgian colony and after it gained independence.

Iranga’s passion for studying history began not in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but in the library at Canning Town.

“I remember getting out a book about Florence Nightingale and thinking it was incredible what this woman had done. I copied down the book before giving it back so I guess I’ve always been interested in the past and recording it,” Iranga said.

She added that from an early age she wanted to know why things happen.

“I used to get told off for asking why. I just understand things don’t happen in a vacuum,” she said.

Describing herself as “nerd adjacent” – not quite a nerd, but almost and capable of “spitting bars” as well as winning national debating competitions – Iranga’s long term plan is to make museums and galleries places where everyone feels welcome regardless of their background.

She explained that for someone living in Custom House or Canning Town it can take a lot to be accepted in that world.

“I want to change that,” Iranga said.

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