Name: Hadeel Khawatmy
Study programme: Health Sciences
Moved out for university: yes
Hadeel in five qualities: go-getter, caring, ambitious, adaptable, family-oriented
Lowest point in 2020: rejected from Medicine at VU Amsterdam
Highest point in 2020: accepted into Health Sciences at UM
And that’s how, three weeks ago, she didn’t sleep at home in the same house as her parents (in Schijndel, Brabant) for the first time in her 21 years of life. It’s taking some getting used to, she says with a smile. She suddenly has to take care of everything herself. “Clean, buy groceries, cook, study, go to university, and call my family ten thousand times a day to assure them that I’m OK.”
She’s older than most first-year students in the Health Sciences programme, and there’s a reason for that. Haweel was born and raised in Aleppo, Syria. When she was eleven years old, the war broke out. Schools closed their doors and, like mosques, became shelters for the ever-growing group of homeless people. They didn’t have enough to eat, didn’t have enough to drink, didn’t have enough electricity – didn’t have enough of anything, really. “Imports from abroad had ceased and Syria itself produced almost nothing anymore. Everything had been bombed to pieces.” They lost her father’s clothing factory and his three factories that produced chocolate and Turkish delight, as well as his shop in the centre of Aleppo. “We were part of one of the richest families, but money didn’t help. There was very little left to buy.”
Life became unsafe, she says. “We were no longer allowed to play in the streets, could no longer go anywhere – to the cinema, to the playground, nowhere. We did get an education; our teachers arranged rooms elsewhere. We went there by car.” And, yes, she was afraid – afraid that something would happen to her parents or her two little brothers (now 18 and 11) and little sister (now 15). Haweel, her parents and her siblings were spared, but their former neighbours and several people they knew did not survive the war.
Grazed by a bullet
Her father wanted his family to have a future and went abroad around 2014, planning to found a new company in Malaysia or, later, Turkey. “We stayed behind in Aleppo and stayed in touch with him via Skype as much as possible, although the power or the internet often went out. It was very difficult for my mother. She worked as a nurse, did the shopping, took care of us, tried to fix up our house after it was bombed. She kept going, even when she was hit by a bullet on the roof of our house late one night. She went to see if we still had water and was probably mistaken for a sniper. She got lucky; the bullet grazed her. When the house next to ours was bombed and she happened to be standing on our balcony, she was also unharmed. I tried to help her out with household chores as much as possible and babysat my little brothers and sister.” Eventually, her father – his plans in Malaysia and Turkey having failed – crossed the Turkish border by boat, ending up in the Netherlands after a long journey. He was granted asylum. In 2017, his wife and children flew to Schiphol Airport under the Dutch family reunification programme.
Hadeel had just started studying Medicine in Syria. It was her big dream. “I wanted to do so ever since I was a small child, but after I did a nursing internship in the hospital where my mother worked when I was fifteen years old, I was sure that I was going to do it. I’ve seen so much in the war, people who needed help but didn’t get it. Like a sixty-year-old man who had internal bleeding because of a bombing, but had to stay home because no hospital beds were available. Horrible. He didn’t make it.” The internship made her realise that she tolerates the sight of blood well and “likes” to cut. “I won’t go into general practice later, I won’t be referring patients to specialists. I want to be the specialist. I want to become a surgeon, do surgeries, help people in a very direct way.”
But then it was early 2017 and she suddenly found herself standing in Schiphol Airport, in a foreign country with a foreign language, having had to quit the study programme of her dreams. With a friendly and self-confident expression behind her large-framed glasses, she says she isn’t one to give up hope easily. She resolved to study Medicine one way or another. Within eight months, she passed the State Exams Dutch as a Second Language (B2) – only to find out that her Syrian secondary-school diploma did not give her access to a Dutch university. “They told me my level was ‘havo 5’.” And so she obtained all the necessary certificates in one year. “I finished in early 2019 and applied to study Medicine at VU Amsterdam.” But she didn’t make it through the first round of the selection process; she was told her CV did not meet their standards. “I came up with an alternative. I would do volunteer work at a nursing home and get first aid certified.” And she did. But in early 2020, VU Amsterdam rejected her application again – for the same reason.
The perfect path
“Then, someone I knew advised me to check out Maastricht. I’d never considered doing that before.” She went to the website, read about the bachelor’s programme in Health Sciences and the master’s programme in Medicine and Clinical Research (AKO) and immediately knew that this was the perfect path for her. The interesting bachelor’s programme would give her an opportunity not only to improve her Dutch even more (“A doctor has to speak the language perfectly, as all the patients speak Dutch”), but also to get used to the Problem-Based Learning approach. She will need to, because it’ll be quite the adjustment for her. “In Syria, you get books to learn by heart. There are exams at the end of the academic year. Here, you don’t have books, but you have to look up everything yourself. There’s a list of perhaps a hundred links for each study block. How do you do that? Don’t memorise them, the tutor said, but do read the articles. I also have to do research here, give presentations, write papers. I’ve never done any of that before.”
She goes to campus every day, sometimes to attend a tutorial, sometimes for a Q&A session or a lecture. Being on Zoom at home (for Q&A sessions and lectures, students can choose: Zoom or campus; tutorials are on campus for everyone) isn’t really for her; she’d get too easily distracted. Hadeel is expecting the first few study blocks to difficult. She is taking into account the possibility that she might not pass every course at once. “But I’ll keep going, I won’t give up. Even if it takes me fifteen years to become a doctor. It’s my lifelong dream.” But she will become a doctor in the Netherlands, not in Syria, which she calls “the most beautiful country in the world” with “the sea, mountains, beautiful architecture, greenery, with history and a rich culture”. She thinks Syria will never recover.
It’s clear where she gets her go-getter attitude from. Her mother (38) also speaks fluent Dutch by now and is currently following a work-study programme in Nursing (her degree didn’t meet the Dutch standards, either). Her father is working in the pastry department of a large bakery. “Yes, he went from factory owner to employee. He doesn’t want to live on benefits, he wants to work for his money. He’s a real entrepreneur, he will definitely start his own company again, but it takes time.”
One last question. She’s Muslim, but she doesn’t wear a hijab. With an open expression on her face, she says, “Some people think that means I’m not a good Muslim. But my father says: if you treat people well, pray every day, give money to the poor, observe Ramadan and go to Mecca if you can afford it, you are a good Muslim. You don’t need to wear a hijab for that.”