From surviving to thriving

Starting university is a momentous change no matter what your circumstances. But for refugees, the challenges of getting into university and making it through are even greater. At Tilburg University, a new one-year program helps refugees prepare for academic success. Homa Golestani, Bassam Hamoudeh and Shahed Sabee are among the program’s first participants, graduating this summer. How did they navigate the transition from conflict to classroom?

On campus, initiatives have sprung up over the last few years to help refugees successfully build a new life in the Netherlands. Students and staff have organized language courses, lecture series, sports activities, labor market trainings and speed-dates with local companies. But the biggest project has been the launch of the academic pre-bachelor. Backed by the Foundation for Refugee Students (UAF) and the local government, Tilburg University developed a one-year preparatory program for refugees who aspire to study at a Dutch university.

The pre-bachelor program welcomed its first participants last September. Spending long days together in a classroom in the Academia building, the class quickly grew close. Outside of class, most of the pre-bachelor students signed up for the student mentoring program Refugees@campus, which matches newcomer students with native students to help students from a refugee background settle into Dutch student life.About the pre-bachelor program

The academic pre-bachelor is a new one-year program, launched in September 2017, which prepares educated refugees to study at a Dutch university. Completion of the pre-bachelor substitutes the entrance examination of the Colloquium Doctum, and gives direct access to a bachelor’s program at Tilburg University. The program was developed by Tilburg University in collaboration with the municipality of Tilburg and the Foundation for Refugee Students (UAF).

Class of 2018

This summer, the class of 2018 will be the very first class to graduate from the pre-bachelor for refugees. How do they look back on the past year? Where do they see themselves in the future? What do the Tilburg University students they were matched with mean to them, and vice versa?

Teaming up with UAF and photographer Ahmet Polat, Univers has been following members of the pre-bachelor class as they make the transition from refugee to university student. Together with their buddies from the mentoring program, the pre-bachelor students took part in a series of photography workshops given by Polat. Over a period of several months, the mentors and mentees shot portraits of each other and photographed their surroundings, capturing student life through different sets of eyes. Their work will be presented in an online production and exhibited on campus at the start of the new academic year, allowing the students’ photographs to inspire, inform and involve others.About photographer Ahmet Polat

Ahmet Polat is a Turkish-Dutch photographer. He received the honorary title of Ambassador of Dutch Photography (Fotograaf des Vaderlands) in 2016. He has taken photographs for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Paris Match, Vogue and Vice, and his work has been exhibited in FOAM, het Rijksmuseum, Stedelijk Amsterdam and Palais des Bozar. In 2016, he produced the traveling photography exhibition ‘Weer toekomst!’ in collaboration with UAF, on the integration of refugees through study and work. The photography sessions also resulted in conversations. About fleeing your country and leaving everything behind, about starting again in a foreign land, about diversity, equality and opportunity in the Netherlands. Here are the stories of pre-bachelor students Homa Golestani, Bassam Hamoudeh and Shahed Sabee, and their student mentors Khadija Tber, Noura Yacoubi and Amarins Nonhebel.

Homa & Khadija

Homa is from Afghanistan. She fled to Europe with her four-year-old son in 2015, becoming part of the largest human migration since World War II. They landed in Tilburg and they were housed in the former tax office along the Professor Cobbenhagenlaan, right around the corner from campus, which served as an emergency shelter for refugees at the time. When Homa started the pre-bachelor program last September, she already knew the campus area well. “When I lived here, I used to go for long walks around campus and in the Warande forest.”

Before they were able to get their own place, Homa and her son stayed in two other asylum seekers’ centers. When the pre-bachelor program started, they were still living in a center, sharing a room with another Afghan family. It was a difficult time, Homa says, during which she often felt completely alone while at the same time not having a shred of privacy. “As a woman traveling alone with a child, it was very difficult for me. In our culture, that’s not something that is easily accepted.”

Homa and her son Thomas—who is now six—are happy in their new house in the south of Tilburg. “We moved in seven months ago. My Dutch friends helped me paint the walls and install a laminate flooring. The neighborhood is nice and quiet, we really like it here,” Homa says. Thomas goes to school nearby and the neighbors in their apartment building are friendly, although Homa still struggles to understand some of them. “Some of our neighbors speak with a thick Tilburg accent. I have trouble understanding what they’re saying, so we just greet each other and keep it at that.”

Homa wants to study international law. Through the mentoring program, she was matched with second-year law student Khadija. Khadija helps Homa prepare for law school, and she assists her with overcoming obstacles and daily problems. “I was born in Morocco, and I spent the first seven years of my life there,” Khadija says. “I know from experience how important it is to have someone who shows you around and helps you with the little things when you come to a new country. That’s why I volunteered to help—because I know it can be difficult.”

Khadija can relate to some of the difficulties Homa experiences in the Netherlands. In the Dutch culture, Homa’s ambitious and independent nature is not answered with disapproval, but with skepticism. After arriving in the Netherlands, Homa immediately wanted to start learning the language, even though she wasn’t allowed to go to school or take courses while she was still awaiting her asylum acceptance. “When I said I wanted to learn Dutch by myself, I was told it would be too difficult for me. And when I said I wanted to go to university, people said: university?! How can you go to university? University is hard for Dutch people, let alone for a refugee who has a child to take care of.”

For Khadija, the feeling of being underestimated rather than facilitated in Dutch society is all too familiar. “Although I grew up here, some people still react surprised when I tell them I’m in university. I think that’s something all foreigners deal with, and refugees even more so. People have a certain image of you. It’s not just about being a refugee, it’s about being foreign—you’re perceived as different.”

People can be quick to stick refugees with a label that stays with them in a hindering way, Homa says. “Being labelled a refugee is difficult. After two and a half years, we’re still refugees. That’s how people continue to see you,” she explains. “I’m a refugee, but that’s not all I am. I’m a person, I have other characteristics too.”

[caption id=”attachment_116361″ align=”aligncenter” width=”100%”> Homa’s son Thomas. Photo: Ahmet Polat

After her studies, Homa hopes to be able to return to Afghanistan. She doubts whether she can ever truly feel at home in the Netherlands. “He adjusted very quickly,” she says, nodding at Thomas as he plays in the grass. “For me, it’s more difficult.” And there’s another reason why Homa wants to go back to Afghanistan once she has obtained her law degree. “I want to improve the situation for women in my country. It’s very bad, I’ve seen it myself. It’s something I can never forget. That’s why I want to study law—a law degree will give me the power to help myself and other women in my country.”

Bassam & Noura

Bassam was an economics student in Damascus when the war broke out. Like the rest of Syria’s young men, Bassam was faced with an impossible choice. “Either I’d have to join the army, or I’d have to flee.”

Shortly after obtaining his bachelor’s degree, Bassam found himself on a boat heading from the coast of Egypt to Italy. He traveled with his two sisters and his younger brother. Caught in severe weather, they had to be rescued by the Greek coast guard before they could reach Italy. It was a terrifying experience. “I saw death,” Bassam says. “In that moment, you’re certain you’re going to die.”

Bassam’s journey from Syria to Europe was a life-changing experience in more than one way—amid the fear and desperation, it was on this journey that he found love. When he was detained in Egypt after a first attempt to make the illegal crossing to Europe, he fell in love with a Syrian woman who was trying to make it to Europe as well. They spent thirty days in that Egyptian prison together, fell in love, stayed in contact. It would take her a year longer than Bassam to reach the Netherlands, but eventually she did. Now they are married, and they have a one-year-old son together.

“It really is an incredible love story,” says Noura, Bassam’s student mentor. “He always speaks about his wife with so much love.” Over the past year, Noura and Bassam have become friends rather than just mentor and mentee. They meet on campus at least once a week. Now that it’s summer, they spend many afternoons sitting on the grass and talking. “We’ve been talking so much for so long now,” says Noura. “I know his story. I know it, but I can’t really comprehend it. I can never comprehend what it’s been like for him.”

Noura studies global communication at Tilburg University. She is currently writing her master’s thesis on the imagery of migrants in Dutch newspapers. “I was fascinated by the metaphors that are used in the media to describe what’s been happening. You read about the ‘refugee crisis’, a ‘refugee flood’, a ‘refugee tsunami’,” she explains. According to Noura, refugees are not the crisis—the real crisis is the xenophobic backlash against people who seek safety from war and persecution. “Perhaps the subtle mechanisms that cause the ‘othering’ of migrants fascinate me because of my own Moroccan background. I’ve been confronted with being different since I was young. Although I was born and raised here, some people still tell me they’re impressed with how well I speak Dutch.”

For Bassam, being a refugee is not something shameful. Nor does it define him. “I don’t consider myself a refugee, I consider myself a person. I’m just a person who no longer felt safe in Syria and who looked for a safe place for me and my family to continue our lives. Some people who fled don’t feel comfortable talking about their story, but I don’t mind. I’m proud of my journey. If I survived that, I can do anything.”

Bassam and his wife recently moved into their new house in Veghel, a small town nestled in the Brabant countryside. Surrounded by fields and pastures where cows quietly graze, Veghel feels worlds away from the hustle and bustle of Damascus. “I used to live in a city of five million,” Bassam says. “Now we just have a few neighbors, and that’s it. It’s quiet here, but I like it. Quiet can be good.”

[caption id=”attachment_116365″ align=”aligncenter” width=”100%”> Noura and Bassam in Veghel. Photo: Ahmet Polat

 For now, the young family is happy to remain in Veghel. “Here, our son has a chance to grow up safely, to go to school, to develop himself,” Bassam says. Bassam will start studying data science at Tilburg University next semester, and his wife is learning Dutch so that she can become licensed as a beautician. But one day they hope to return to Syria. “If Syria will ever become safe again, I would definitely want to return. It’s my home.”

Bassam hopes that he can help rebuild his country some day. “I know a lot of young Syrians who are studying in the Netherlands or other European countries. They didn’t come here to sit at home and do nothing, they came here so they can develop their talents. Some day they could use those talents to help restore the country. I want to be a data scientist, others want to become engineers or doctors,” he says. Smiling faintly, he adds: “Or psychologists—we’ll definitely need lots of those.”

Shahed & Amarins

Shahed is the youngest participant of the pre-bachelor class. Born in Abu Dhabi as the daughter of a Syrian mother and a Palestinian father, she has many homelands. “We lived in Abu Dhabi for most of my life, because my father worked there. Later we moved to Syria, until the war broke out. For me, Abu Dhabi is home. That’s where I was born and raised.”

Shahed’s mother fled to Europe by boat after the Syrian war started. She landed in the Netherlands, while the rest of the family returned to Abu Dhabi awaiting to join her. “We stayed in Abu Dhabi without my mother for a year before we could come to the Netherlands. I had to drop out of school because we could no longer afford it. I stayed at home, took care of the house and cooked for my father, my brothers and my little sister.”

In Tilburg, Shahed still spends much of her free time in the kitchen. “I love cooking and taking pictures of food. But it’s just a hobby,” she says. Next semester, Shahed will start the bachelor’s program in psychology at Tilburg University. “I want to become a clinical psychologist so that I can help others. At home, I’m already a bit of a psychologist. Whenever someone in my family feels the need to talk to someone, they always come to me.”

But even the best psychologists sometimes need support of their own. Shahed can turn to her student mentor Amarins. Amarins has been a big support, she says. “I was new in Tilburg, so I really needed someone to help me get to know the city. I had many questions about my insurance, about my brother who is currently still in Turkey, about mathematics. Amarins helped me with that. And she’s also going to teach me how to ride a bike.”

“I’m not always able to help out myself. I can’t help Shahed with math, for example, so I asked one of my friends to help her,” Amarins says. When she signed up for the mentoring program, Amarins was doing a pre-master in international management after finishing a bachelor’s in human recourse studies, but she decided that the pre-master wasn’t for her after all. Now that Amarins has left university to work fulltime, meeting up on campus in between classes is no longer possible. “We don’t see each other very often anymore, but we do talk a lot via WhatsApp,” Shahed says.

“We get along really well, but we are very different,” Amarins says. “Maybe that’s the age difference—I’m twenty-five and Shahed is eighteen—but it could also be because we’re from different cultural backgrounds, or simply because we have different personalities. Shahed is a lot more reserved than I am. I tend to blurt out everything that’s on my mind. She’s not like that at all. In the beginning, it was quite difficult for me to figure out what Shahed was thinking, what she needed, what she wanted to do, whether I was being helpful or not.”

[caption id=”attachment_116368″ align=”aligncenter” width=”100%”> Amarins. Photo: Ahmet Polat

Shahed explains that it takes more time for her to trust someone. “I’m more careful around new people. You tend to think that everyone is kind and good,” she tells Amarins. “It’s because you have a good heart. When you’re a good person, you assume that other people are good as well. I don’t think all people are good. I’ve seen too many bad people.”

Although she is excited to start studying psychology next semester, Shahed is also a little nervous about how she will connect to her new fellow students. “Next year, most of my friends from class are going to study in other cities. In Eindhoven, Rotterdam, Amsterdam. I’ll have to start over in a new class and make new friends.”

Once Shahed has eased into her new routine as a psychology student, she would like to get her own place like Amarins. “But before I start looking for a student room, I want to concentrate on my study and see how it goes. First things first.”About UAF and Refugees@campus

The Foundation for Refugee Students (UAF) has supported refugees in their studies and in finding suitable employment since 1948. In addition to regular support, refugee students can apply for a student mentor through a special project, Refugees@campus, allowing them to get acquainted to Dutch higher education and student life in a low-key manner. So far, 450 matches between refugee students and student mentors have been made. Many of the refugees who participated in this year’s pre-bachelor program in Tilburg applied for a student mentor, and an overwhelming number of TiU students volunteered. At Tilburg University, 12 matches were made.


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