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The Dutch Learn to Welcome Refugee Students

THE HAGUE, Netherlands–When Wassim Mahmoud needs help navigating student life in Amsterdam, he turns to Rosa Rietkerk, a Dutch political-science student.

Mahmoud, a 29-year-old Palestinian from Syria, and Rietkerk, 20, met through the Foundation for Refugee Students (known by its Dutch acronym, UAF), a charity that supports refugees in higher education.

Mahmoud faced a daunting task when he began his master’s degree in development studies at the University of Amsterdam in September. “As a new student, I didn’t have any friends I could ask for advice,” he said.

For Rietkerk, meanwhile, volunteering with UAF was a great opportunity to witness a global issue firsthand.

“We learn about politics and the international system, but it’s very theoretical and I wanted to do something practical,” she said. “So I think it’s great if I can make Wassim feel a bit more welcome in the Netherlands.”

UAF launched its [email protected] project a year ago with a $1.74-million grant from the Dutch Postcode Lottery. The program matches student volunteers and refugees who hopefully are studying within the same field.

So far, 300 refugee students have been paired with native Dutch students, said Remko de Kok, who oversees the project. The aim is to create 500 pairs within three years.

“It’s about looking to the future,” said de Kok. “Helping with the language, finding your way around campus, where you can go for coffee—but also introducing them to your network, maybe taking them to the volleyball club or just going into town and showing them what Amsterdam has to offer.”

UAF started the program in part to lower the high dropout rate among refugees in Dutch higher education.

Around 60 percent of refugees who complete a foundation program designed to prepare them for more strenuous study go on to enroll in a university. But 25 percent of those who enroll abandon their studies in the first year. Socialization is a key factor in the problem, said de Kok.

Heba Dakak, right, has been paired with fellow journalism student Lotte Rinzema, in a mentoring program for refugees. (Photo by Sahar Jahish, UAF)

“What we heard back from refugees is that meeting Dutch students is crucial,” said de Kok. “It sounds basic, but they need to make contact with Dutch people on campus so they can improve their language skills, get to know people around them, understand what’s going on and gain the self-confidence they need to keep going.”

Dutch institutions expect the number of refugees on campuses to grow in the next few years. In 2015 and 2016, an unprecedented 90,000 people sought asylum in the Netherlands or joined family members already there. More than one-third of them were fleeing the Syrian civil war.

As a result, the Syrian population in the Netherlands has grown fourfold since 2014, to 64,000 people.

Last year, only 600 refugees were studying in Dutch universities, said education officials. But refugee students are usually in the country an average of four years before they enroll in schools, so the impact of the recent influx is still to be felt. UAF estimates that the total number of refugee students could peak at anywhere between 3,000 and 8,500 in the next two years.

The new students are likely to experience serious culture shock. Dutch academic culture encourages students to speak their minds—a habit contrary to many Middle Easterners’ sensibilities.

“Dutch people are very direct,” said Mahmoud. “In Syria, people are more diplomatic. But I think it’s a good thing. You understand straight away what’s happening or what’s the basis of your relationship. They’re very organized, very structured, always dependent on their diaries. Sometimes it’s an advantage, sometimes a disadvantage.”

Heba Dakak, 19, a Syrian refugee who arrived two years ago, said she had to adjust when she began studying journalism at Windesheim University of Applied Sciences, in Zwolle, earlier this year.

“In my own country, if you’re critical of something you don’t just come out and say it,” she said. “But here you have to be critical of everything and very direct and make yourself clear.”

Dakak had help. UAF paired her with a fellow journalism student, Lotte Rinzema, 20, who is in her fourth year. “I wanted to help a first-year student because I know how hard it can be in the beginning,” said Rinzema. “It helps me to develop as a journalist as well, because it makes me realize how little I really know about the Arab world.”

Language is also a barrier for refugee students in the Netherlands. Many university courses are taught in English. But employers expect graduates to have at least a working knowledge of Dutch. Without the chance to mix with local students, refugees struggle to achieve proficiency in the language.

“My course is in English, but I want to learn Dutch because I live here and I want to find a job,” said Ali Kahawati, 22, a Syrian refugee who is studying computer science and engineering at Delft University of Technology.

He meets regularly with Casper Kroes, a 20-year-old public administration student. “Since I got to know Ali, I’ve started noticing how many Syrians there are at the university,” said Kroes.

De Kok said it was too early to say if the program was bringing down the dropout rate among refugee students. But the response so far has been encouraging. The relationships are breaking barriers and building bonds between two groups that might otherwise view each other with fear and suspicion, he said.

The refugee students “have to start from scratch, and the Dutch students see how determined they are to make something of their lives,” he said. “They value that and they learn from it.”


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