Tilburg University prepares for rise in refugee students

Tilburg University prepares for rise in refugee students

There has been a sharp rise in the number of highly educated refugees who seek to continue their education in the Netherlands. As those affected by the migrant crisis are trying to build a new life, Tilburg University is stepping up to offer assistance.

The Foundation for Refugee Students (UAF) reports that the number of applications from highly educated refugees has increased by fifty percent. The organization received 2100 applications for support in 2016, compared to 1400 in 2015. “Many refugees who came to the Netherlands in the last two years have now obtained a permit for residence, and are ready to build a future here”, the foundation states in a press release. As the global migrant crisis is driving up the demand for programs and facilities for the growing group of refugee students, Tilburg University is launching a one-year preparatory program for highly qualified refugees who want to study on university level. This September, the Academic Pre-Bachelor program will welcome its first participants.

Refugee students at Tilburg University

Currently, Tilburg University is home to an estimated 35 refugee students. One-third of these students are registered with UAF. Without additional support from the university, these students must rely on their own determination, and on the practical and financial support from the UAF. Many refugee students struggle with the gap that exists between the Dutch education system and the education system in the student’s country of origin. With the newly-established Academic Training for Refugees, Tilburg University will be better equipped to help refugee students bridge that gap.

Last February, Univers talked to two refugee students at Tilburg University: Mohammed Elgizoly Adam from Darfur and Emal Hashemi from Afghanistan. Read their stories below, or in the online version of Univers #8.Mohammed Elgizoly Adam, Global Law

Mohammed Elgizoly Adam (photo: Dolph Cantrijn)

Mohammed Elgizoly Adam (photo: Dolph Cantrijn)

“I was born in Darfur, in a place called Al-Malam. I had a really good life before the war erupted in 2003. I was a student at the university of Khartoum in Sudan. When the war in Darfur started, there was a lot of confusion in Khartoum about what was going on. With a group of other students from Darfur, we started to raise awareness about the atrocities that were taking place in our home region. That’s when the tensions between us and the government started. We were arrested multiple times. When I was arrested for the third time, I was imprisoned for a year.

After I got out of prison, I fled to Egypt and stayed in Cairo for a while. Despite the risks, I eventually returned home to help my family. I decided to keep quiet and stay under the radar. I got a job to support my family, and I didn’t get involved in activism. But I was arrested again, without clear reason. This time I got sick in prison. I had malaria, but they refused to take me to a doctor. Friends, family and the UN mission in Darfur were campaigning for my release. I went on a hunger strike for 33 days. They eventually released me, on the condition that I reported to the prison officer every morning. I was there every day from 8:00 until 14:00 o’clock. That period was harder for me than the time I was imprisoned, because I had to witness other prisoners being tortured. I could hear their voices. That was more painful than being tortured myself. After a while, I was physically and psychologically so exhausted that I almost lost my mind. One morning, I decided that I was never going back to that prison.

I fled to Kenya on foot, where I lived in refugee camps. One day, I was told that I was selected to be resettled in Friesland, the Netherlands, together with a group of others. Out of all refugees, I consider us the lucky ones. In some camps in Africa, people are born as refugees and they die as refugees. Still, starting from zero again in a new country wasn’t easy. I already had a bachelor’s degree, but I had to take a lot of steps back before I was able to move forward again. I wanted to study law, but I first had to obtain the equivalent of a Dutch high school diploma to be accepted into university. That was frustrating, but I had no other option.

Refugee students have to work hard. Many refugees are from a poor educational background. If you studied in a developing country, it’s not easy to succeed in a highly developed educational environment. Everything is completely different, especially the technical stuff. I had difficulty working with Blackboard when I first started studying here, and using citations and footnotes correctly. That was completely new to me. There are still moments that I feel stressed or overwhelmed. But I believe that the only way you can make it, is through hard work and determination. I don’t like failing. But mostly, I like reading and learning. It’s a relief for me. For quite some time, it was the only thing that kept me alive. The more I learn, the more I feel human. Even if I couldn’t get a job for the rest of my life, I would not regret a single day that I spent in university.”Emal Hashemi, pre-master International Management

Emal Hashemi (photo: Dolph Cantrijn)

Emal Hashemi (photo: Dolph Cantrijn)

“Growing up in Afghanistan, I never experienced peace. I’m part of a war generation. I was born in 1983, during the Soviet-Afghan war. After the Soviet Union pulled its last troops out of Afghanistan, a civil war broke out. It was really bad, you cannot imagine. I had to leave home for safety reasons. In 2008, I arrived in the Netherlands in search of a better, safer life.

After I arrived in the Netherlands, I lived in many asylum seekers’ centers across the country. In Ter Apel and in Deventer, for example. I noticed that people were wasting a lot of time there, and I decided that I wanted to make optimal use of my time instead of just waiting and doing nothing all day. I heard there were a lot of educational opportunities in the Netherlands, so I thought: why shouldn’t I explore these opportunities? I contacted UAF, and fortunately they wanted to help me. Eventually, I completed an hbo program in International Business in Deventer. I was still living in asylum seekers’ centers at that time. I had to travel a lot, and I would stay at school until late. When you live in an azc, you don’t have a lot of privacy or alone-time to study. Sometimes you have problems with your roommates, or people come home late and disturb your sleep. It wasn’t easy, but I believe that if you want to do something, you can do it.

I now live in Arnhem with friends, and I follow the International Management pre-master’s program at Tilburg University. I started again, I built a new life here. I tried to forget everything, but I can’t. I still have problems, even though I’m happy here. As a human being, you can’t detach yourself from your history. I’m sitting here, but I’m with my memories. I’m always in my past. I still have to use medicine to sleep, and I have problems concentrating. I try to keep myself busy. Studying is a blessing for me, because it takes my mind off my problems, my loneliness. The problem is that I can’t always focus. I know I have the ability, but because of my lack of concentration it’s often difficult for me to study.

I don’t think the university knows about my refugee background. They didn’t ask, and I didn’t tell them. I’m registered as an international student. I don’t want to get any favors or sympathy simply because I’m a refugee, I don’t believe in that. I want to be on my own two feet, to find my way and to be part of society as any other student. But I do think the university should consider the challenges that refugee students face. I’m not the only one who struggles with concentration problems and differences in levels of education. Refugee students are under a lot of pressure to succeed.

Sometimes I hear people say: if you fail, you fail. But for us, everything is do or die. Most refugee students are not youngsters anymore. We don’t have time to experiment, to figure out what we want to do. We’ve been given a chance to start over, but that’s it – that’s your only chance. That can be really stressful. I believe refugee students have different but similar problems. They may have much more talent than you think, but without help those talents are wasted. It’s a team effort to help refugee students move forward in society, and the university should also play its part.”


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