Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes
MAASTRICHT. “Here, take some ice cream.” It’s Thursday evening at Innbetween, the new location and name of the Ecumenical Student Chaplaincy Tafelstraat 13, and the room is buzzing with chatter and laughter. About thirty students and twenty refugees are here for the first activity of the Refugee Project. They’ve just eaten together and are now ready for dessert. Later tonight, they will watch the documentary Dublin Pitfall about Syrian refugees who fled to Bulgaria.
The Refugee Project was founded by Innbetween and the Student & Society Initiative (SSI). The idea is for students and refugees from the Maastricht asylum centre to interact and socialise. The aim is to give the refugees a break from their day-to-day wait for news about their family or asylum application. After an information night, 130 students applied as volunteers. The organisation is now examining their applications, figuring out who can do what. “Some people want to work directly with the COA, the central agency for the shelter of asylum seekers”, says Aurelia Streit of the SSI. “But they have quite high demands; you have to be available for two shifts per week and get a certificate of good conduct. People who don’t have that much time will organise evenings like these, where we’ll cook or play music together. We hope to organise a get-together every two weeks.”
Henrijk Przychodzki and Lucile de la Croix, both first-year students of European Studies, are two of the volunteers. “Out of interest and curiosity”, says De la Croix. “We learn about the problems and regulations surrounding asylum seekers every day at university, but now we get to hear the real stories from real people.” Tonight, the dinner conversation covered all sorts of topics. “Of course we talked about their stories, that’s important, but these people are much more than that”, says Przychodzki. “We also discussed books, films, music and the little differences between countries.”
While the last dinner guests are finishing their ice cream, more people enter the room; the screening of Dublin Pitfall is open to a larger audience. Sandrina Buckhardt, a master’s student of Politics and Society, organised this part of the evening. “I came into contact with the film maker, Rime El Jadidi, through a friend of mine. She asked if there was a possibility to screen it in Maastricht, so I contacted the SSI.” Streit: “It was perfect timing, as we were just starting out on this project.”
Dublin Pitfall considers the consequences of the Dublin Regulation for Syrian refugees. According to the regulation, people can only apply for and be granted asylum in the first European country they are registered in by having their fingerprints taken. For many, that country is Bulgaria, because of its easily accessible border with Turkey. However, being one of Europe’s poorest countries, Bulgaria wasn’t prepared for the thousands of Syrians who entered the country in 2013. The documentary follows several refugees who, having fled their homes, then had to face harsh conditions in their host country.
After the screening, student pastor Arie de Fijter invites people to share their thoughts and stories. Several refugees take the microphone. Among them is Amar, a man in his sixties, who arrived in Maastricht four months ago. “Eleven million Syrians have fled their homes. That’s half the country’s population; what is international society doing?” he asks in fluent English. He later explains that he also speaks perfect French and a bit of German, in addition to his native tongue, Arabic. “And now I’m learning Dutch”, he smiles. “I’m here for my son, who is in his early twenties; I want him to have a better life. I’m grateful for the reception we got here, people have been very kind.” A young woman – also from Syria – shares his feelings. “We spent eleven days at sea. It was a very risky trip; many people drowned. I feel so lucky to be here. But don’t forget the people back in Syria who fled their homes and now live near or just across the borders in dreadful conditions. Those are the ones who need our help.”
A couple of refugees emphasise that they are not in the Netherlands merely to profit from government benefits. “We want to work. We need to work”, says Mohammed, an architect. “We need to practise our skills so that we don’t lose them. Maybe we could set up workshops with Dutch architects. Their experience will be very helpful when the violence is over and we rebuild Syria.” Amir, an internist who came to the Netherlands in August, says he feels frustrated not being allowed to work. “I always believed knowledge was power; it felt like a passport to me. But since coming here I realised that it isn’t. To be able to practise medicine again in the Netherlands I’ll have to pass tests, do internships; it’s a really long process. There are huge differences between European countries. For instance, in Germany all you need is a language certificate. But because of the Dublin Regulation, I can’t go to another country now that I’m registered here.” He hates being dependent on others. “I’m not used to it. It destroys my pride. Back in Syria, my wife and I talked about early retirement. Be careful what you wish for!” His wife and two children are still there. “It was dangerous to take them with me and dangerous to leave them there. I was caught between a rock and a hard place. I applied for family reunion; hopefully I’ll get good news soon.”
After the meeting, many students approach the refugees who spoke to ask them more about their situations. It was an impressive evening, says artist Dirk Bours, who accompanied his girlfriend, a UM employee. “I knew there was an asylum centre in Overmaas, the old prison, but not much more than that. Hearing these stories has made me realise how horrible the situation in Syria is. Half the population has fled! Imagine that happening in the Netherlands; it’s unthinkable. We all complain about small stuff, but we shouldn’t be complaining at all.”
The refugees’ last names have been omitted for their protection.