6 May 2019

InclUUsion enables refugees to study at Utrecht University

What is it like to study as a refugee at Utrecht University?

Asmahan Mahmoud en Elaheh (Ella) Akin
Asmahan Mahmoud en Elaheh (Ella) Akin

InclUUsion enables refugees to study at Utrecht University, but what do you do if you can’t afford to travel to Utrecht? When the Centre for the Humanities (CfH) heard that InclUUsion students were having trouble getting to the university due to the costs of public transport they decided to help out. They provided a budget to cover the transportation costs for some of these students. Elaheh (Ella) Akin and Asmahan Mahmoud are the first students to use this budget. They share with us their experiences as refugees living in the Netherlands, what it’s like to study at the university through InclUUsion, and their plans and ambitions for the future. A talk with Hannah Peters.

Gender studies

© iStockphoto.com

Ella and Asmahan talked to the CfH prior to the course ‘gender, ethnicity, and religion’. They are both taking classes in Gender Studies to apply for the corresponding research master’s. “When I started studying at the UU, my initial plan was to do a master’s in International Development,” Asmahan explains. She fled from Syria, where she was working with women and children for Unicef. She has been living in several asylum centers- or refugee camps as both students refer to them- in the Netherlands since last December, and is now living in Almere.

Ella did her bachelor’s in Mathematics and Science In Secondary Education. “I was a refugee caseworker in Turkey working for an International NGO, a partner of UNHCR. Before I became a refugee myself, I was already working in the field and becoming familiar with the refugee life”. She has been in the Netherlands with her husband and daughter since last July, and is now living in a refugee camp in Arnhem.

Change of plans

Taking classes in Gender Studies sparked an interest in the field for both Asmahan and Ella. “It completely changed my plans,” Asmahan explains. “I am passionate about Gender Studies, so I decided to pursue this passion at the UU”. Ella agrees, and mentions the positive atmosphere. “The students and the instructors are very welcoming”.

The students from humanities are often very interested in our experiences, and want to know what they can do to help refugees.
Asmahan Mahmoud

Living in a 'refugee camp'

Asmahan and Ella have found their academic community and feel welcome in the classes, but they point out that living in the asylum center is difficult. They need to move around constantly, and having a room for oneself is a thing of the past. Asmahan spends as much time as she can outside of her residence, because it’s impossible to get work done there. “I get up, take my breakfast with me, study in the computer room, go to the gym, facilitate activities for the women in the camp, and return to my unit at 10 PM, only to shower and go to bed right away. It’s hopeless to try to get anything done within the house, because there are a lot of families living together in a very small space”.

Ella is especially worried for her daughter. “I need to keep an eye on her constantly, because people will- without asking for my permission- touch her, or offer her chocolate or sweets! I’m terrified that someone will abuse her. I don’t want to distrust everyone, but you have to be precautious. As I’ve said before, I’ve worked with refugees, and I know the kind of stuff that happens within the camps. I need to look out for her, and I hope that we’ll be out of the camps soon”.

Going to Utrecht University is more than just attending education.

More than just taking classes

Living at the asylum center is no easy feat, and being able to go outside the center is crucial. Ella explains that coming to the university is more that just getting education. “It helps to get out of the camp and experience life outside of its borders. Unfortunately, many families are unable to afford this, and I know how demotivating and depressing being stuck at the camp can be. I take my daugther with me sometimes, so she can meet new people, see new places, and simply just be in a more optimistic environment”.

Aside from getting to classes, using public transport is a great way to integrate into Dutch society according to Asmahan: “By having to travel to Utrecht I’ve learned how the public transportation system works: Figuring out the NS phone app, getting to know the departure schedules, and using the OV chip card. It might not sound like a lot, but it’s these little things that help getting involved in the Dutch society”.

Where’s the UU refugee office?

Taking classes at Utrecht university isn’t just walking into a class and sitting down. There’s a complex administrative system behind class administration to make sure that things run smoothly. Luckily students can go to the Studiepunt or the International Office for practical support. But Studiepunt is for students with a Dutch citizenship and the International Office for students with another citizenship, so where do you go when you’re in an ‘in-between’ space?

Asmahan tells how she’s been trying to find someone within the university to help her out, but “there’s no specific person or office to go to as a refugee”. Ella agrees: “We’re in a grey area. We don’t know who to talk to about administrative problems caused specifically by our refugee status”. Though there is some guidance available for refugee students at the university, the information can be difficult to find, and in a heavily online-based system it can be hard to find the right person to talk to. These practical issues need to be looked at urgently, but both students agree that InclUUsion is significantly assisting them throughout the procedures.

The importance of InclUUsion

Asmahan and Ella unanimously agree that initiatives like InclUUsion are vital for the wellbeing of refugees. Ella illustrates how she’s taking classes at the UU is not just for her, but also to inspire the women around her. “My daughter is my strongest motivation. I want her to be proud of her mother and to see me chasing my goals. I want to actively work to create a better world for her. And not just for her, but also for other children and women in the camps”.

Asielzoekerscentrum Utrecht
Asylum seekers centre Utrecht

Asmahan points out that pursuing her academic career is interrelated with her desire to help others. “People who haven’t lived in crisis areas often have no idea of what really goes on there. They might have a general idea, but they don’t know the details. Being able to talk about my experiences with other students helps to build compassion and support. By creating awareness among my fellow students, I can support the women I live with at the camp”.

Supporting InclUUsion students

The CfH thanks Ella and Asmahan for speaking about their experiences and hopes that they successfully pursue their academic careers. Being able to afford public transit is essential for studying at Utrecht University, and for students like Ella and Asmahan a budget like the one provided by the CfH can make the difference. The CfH hopes to inspire other organisations, within as well as outside of the university, to consider supporting InclUUsion students by financing their transportation, a seemingly minor- but surprisingly significant- contribution for InclUUsion students.