Homeless internationals Alfred and Rishabh lived in tents: ‘We got through it together’

Homeless internationals Alfred and Rishabh lived in tents: ‘We got through it together’

International students Rishabh and Alfred are not homeless for Christmas. But they were homeless for the start of the academic year. With no place to stay upon their arrival in Tilburg, they joined a camp for homeless internationals set up by student organization I.S.A.T. in the Spoorpark. “During the day I worked on my algebra at a picnic table, and at night I spooned my luggage in a two-by-two tent.” 

Alfred and Rishabh. Photo: Dolph Cantrijn

Alfred and Rishabh. Photo: Dolph Cantrijn

When Alfred (28, Data Science) from Finland and Rishabh (19, Economics) from India arrived in Tilburg this summer, they had packed everything they could possibly need to start Dutch university life into their suitcases. Passport. Clothes. Laptop. Study books. Raincoat.

But what was not on their packing list was a tent to live in. 

Rishabh and Alfred were two of the approximately 150 internationals still desperately looking for a room when lectures started this year. Now that the semester is over, Univers caught up with them on campus to find out how being homeless affected their first year at Tilburg University.

No room for internationals

Rishabh: “When I received my acceptance letter from Tilburg University, I was really happy. I knew it would be difficult to find housing, but I definitely didn’t expect to be jumping around the city for months.”

Alfred: “Friends had told me about the student housing shortage in other Dutch university cities, so I was prepared for it to take some effort. Maybe naively, though, I believed it would be fine—if I just applied and applied and applied, eventually someone would accept me. But that didn’t happen.”

Rishabh: “It’s not that there isn’t any housing available in Tilburg. The problem is that there isn’t anything available to you as a student coming from another country. When you’re still living abroad, it’s pointless to look for housing through agencies and websites like Kamernet. You’ll just end up spending money on subscriptions. And many of the rooms advertised on Facebook are ‘Dutch only’. That makes it really difficult for international students to find a place.” 

“I had never slept in a tent before”

Alfred: “In my opinion, the university should have taken more responsibility. We received an automated email every now and then, but general updates and ‘kind regards’ aren’t very helpful when you’re moving to another country and you don’t have anywhere to live. I mean, I really like studying at Tilburg University and I think the teaching is great, but the way the university handled the housing issue was disappointing to me. I would have appreciated it if the university had reached down to the level of individual students. For example, someone from the university could have stopped by the camp to talk to us about the situation. Just some small gesture to let us know we’re not being left hanging would have meant a lot, you know?”

Camp life

Rishabh: “The situation was really stressful, but the camp itself was great. I had no idea what to expect. I had never slept in a tent before.”

Alfred: “Really, never?”

Rishabh: “Never. It was technically my first time camping, so it was a completely new experience. I liked it a lot. After all the frustration that came with searching for housing, it was really nice to be in an environment where nobody met the ‘Dutch only’ requirement. We were all from different countries, and we were all going through the same thing.”

“It was nice to be in an environment where nobody met the ‘Dutch only’ requirement”

Alfred: “From day one, we were a community. That was an amazing thing to experience. It helped me a lot. Even when it stormed and rained and our tents flipped over in the middle of the night, we got through it together.”

Rishabh: “Yeah, some of the nights weren’t the nicest. But overall, I slept really well in my tent. And, for me, studying wasn’t too difficult either. I just stayed on campus all day to study before returning to the camp.” 

Alfred: “I worked on my algebra at a picnic table during the day, and I spooned my luggage in a two-by-two tent at night. I’m 1.93 tall and half of my life was stuffed inside my tent, so my legs were sticking out and it was pretty cramped. But I woke up feeling pretty fresh every morning. I liked that the birds were my alarm clock. First you’d hear one bird calling, and then they would all start chirping away. It was nice waking up to that.”

Video: the first day of camp

Graduating from a tent to a house

Alfred: “Rishabh and I were actually campsite neighbors. I called him Striker, because he scored so many goals when we had an inflatable soccer game.” 

Rishabh: “We had a lot of activities at the campsite. That was fun. It took our minds off the housing situation.”

Alfred: “Max and Antonia, who organized the camp, were so helpful and supportive. They organized all these activities for us, and they were working really hard to help us find housing while we were staying at the camp.”

Rishabh: “With their help, most of us had found a permanent place to stay before the camp ended.”

Alfred: “I was lucky enough to get a room in a house for ten people, which the owner decided to rent out exclusively to international students. We moved in right after the camp. I’m really happy with where I live now.”

“Whenever I see someone from the camp now, there’s this instant feeling of camaraderie”

Rishabh: “For me, it took a little longer to find something permanent. After the camp, I stayed at a hotel for two weeks. Because it was becoming too expensive to stay at the hotel, I crashed at Alfred’s new place until someone I knew was leaving his temporary room at the Beekse Bergen holiday park. I moved into his old room and stayed there for another ten days before I finally found my own place with help from the university. It was late October by then, so I had basically been homeless for three months.”

Awful and awesome

Rishabh: “Looking back on it now, the housing situation was a really bad experience, and the camp was a really good one.”

Alfred: “With all the mess and misunderstanding that was going on, the camp was the best thing that could have happened for us. It really helped me integrate into Tilburg and university life.” 

Rishabh: “Remember those sympathizing looks we used to get from complete strangers who walked by the camp? One day, when I was sitting outside, someone saw me and actually came up to me to ask what was happening and why we were in tents.”

Alfred: “As crazy as it was, I’m glad I got to experience it. The community, the people, the friends… Whenever I see someone from the camp now, there’s this instant feeling of camaraderie. We shared an experience that was both awful and awesome.”

Rishabh: “The camp was great. I wouldn’t take it back, even if it meant finding a house back then. If I had to choose between immediately finding housing or experiencing the camp, I’d choose the camp.”


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