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"All the options are driving me crazy"

"All the options are driving me crazy"

Photographer:Fotograaf: commons.wikipedia.org

Refugee centre information evening

MAASTRICHT. How many people are they expecting tonight? Luc van den Akker, coordinator of the International Desk and refugees contact person at Maastricht University, isn’t sure. But that’s precisely the purpose of this first information evening organised jointly by Maastricht University and Zuyd University of Applied Sciences at the Maastricht refugee centre: to take stock of how many people are interested in further education and what their needs are.

“Surprise”, says Nouran Ahmed from Zuyd University when her colleagues and Van den Akker arrive. “There’s no projector.” They are standing in one of the common rooms in the refugee centre. This is where children play during the day, as can be seen from the handicrafts on the wall and the building blocks in a corner. A second laptop materialises, so that the attendees will be able to watch the informational films tonight. Ahmed will kick off the evening with a brief introduction in Arabic, after which the refugees will get the chance to ask questions.

Slowly but surely people trickle in, both from the refugee centre and outside it. A grand total of five. “At first I was disappointed”, says Van den Akker later. “But in the end it turned into a kind of brainstorming session that we got a lot out of. For us it’s also about figuring out how best to reach people and what they want to know.” The attendees are also here on behalf of others. “Could I take some more brochures? I’m going to translate them for some women who don’t speak English”, says an Iranian woman. “My father is an architect; can he follow a master’s degree in English here?”, a Syrian in his twenties asks.

Ahmed starts UM’s informational film and a deep voice rings out, explaining how Problem-Based Learning works. A bearded man nods away enthusiastically. He has been in the Netherlands for a while and has already been given a place to live. In Syria he studied social sciences; now he is keen to finish a master’s degree as soon as possible. “I want to get back to work.” He’s not the only one in a hurry. The Iranian woman asks whether there are individual courses you can follow before being admitted to a study programme. “I was working on my PhD.”

The Syrian twenty-something wants to know what conditions he has to meet in order to be admitted to university. Van den Akker has drawn up a document detailing the different educational levels of the Dutch school system and their Arabic equivalents. It seems to come in handy; the Dutch system is confusing for those unfamiliar with it. “Surely I can’t do VMBO, then HAVO and then VWO? I don’t have the time for that”, says the Syrian, panicked. No, he is reassured. Depending on your level you’ll do one of the three. “But you could do, say, VWO after HAVO. In that case you’d start at VWO at level 5. Or you could first do a year at a university of applied sciences and then go to university.” The young man sighs. “In Syria we just have one high school system; everyone does the same level. And after that you go to university to become a doctor or a lawyer. Here you have so many different programmes.” “But isn’t that great?”, asks Mohannad Altabban, a Syrian master’s student of Global Health. “Eventually”, laughs the young man. “But for now all the options are driving me crazy.”

Altabban began his programme at UM in September. As a scholarship student, he doesn’t have official refugee status and did not follow the same path as these refugees. Still, he hopes to be able to give them some sound advice. “I notice that you mainly ask about UM, not about Zuyd. We have to get it out of our heads that you need to be a doctor to get a good job and earn a lot of money. You can get a good job if you go to a university of applied sciences too. Everyone is equal here.” He is referring to the relative social equality in the Netherlands, where the head of the department also gets the coffee, and a plumber sometimes earns more than a director.

Altabban has another practical tip. “All the information can be found online. Really everything, I knew exactly what I would be doing this year, which courses I would follow and what they entail before I sent in my application. We’re not used to that. In Syria you don’t get any information about how to apply to university until you need to. There are no standard requirements to enter, at least not like here. I applied to over 30 universities and almost all my questions were answered with ‘check this link’ or ‘look at this page on our website’. People here will expect you to know the information available online.”

The attendees nod, but point out the immediate problem: there aren’t many computers in the refugee centre. “Would it help if we were to spend an hour per week here, so that people could walk in if they have a question?”, asks Van den Akker. That’s an idea, says the bearded man, “but will you also go to the other centres in Limburg? There’s Baexem, Echt, Brunssum ...” Van den Akker is afraid there’s no budget for that. “How did you find out about tonight?”, he asks the group. Their case manager told them, they say. “Maybe we could give the case manager more information”, Van den Akker later suggests to Ahmed.

After reviewing the issue, representatives of UM and Zuyd have decided to join the weekly question hour for work and education at the refugee centre in Limmel every third Thursday of the month.

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