Welcoming newcomers at Maastricht University Loraine Bodewes

Welcoming newcomers at Maastricht University

Written by  Jolien Linssen Friday, 30 September 2016 08:34

Vice Rector for Education Harm Hospers is clear: “As an academic institution, it is our social responsibility to help out with the refugee crisis.” Together with local partners, Maastricht University (UM) has set up a programme which enables refugees to access higher education. At the same time, students are organising events to meet and interact with asylum seekers. They all share the same goal: making a difference.

“This morning wehad all stakeholders at the table again”, Hospers says. “That’s a rewarding experience, since we’re dealing with complex problems that call for collaboration.” He is referring to the monthly meeting between representatives of UM, Zuyd University of Applied Sciences, the Regional Training Centre Leeuwenborgh, the asylum seeker centre and the municipality. “Just to illustrate the complexity: refugees who are over 30 are no longer eligible for a student loan. They need to get permission from the city to study, otherwise they’re obliged to apply for jobs. So it’s crucial that we work together, particularly to avoid causing confusion and giving false hope to the refugees. We don’t want to add yet another disappointment to these people’s lives.”

The UM Language Centre provides language courses that prepare refugees with the right qualifications for the NT2 State Exam, which is necessary to gain access to higher education in the Netherlands. In addition, it offers courses that introduce participants to Dutch society and the labour market. “Around 50 refugees are enrolled in our Dutch language courses at the moment”, Hospers says. “Now we know them well, it’s also possible to help them in other areas too. If they want to start an English-language bachelor’s or master’s programme, for instance, we can help out with English training and testing.”

But UM’s responsibility doesn’t end with getting refugees into higher education, says Hospers. “The next step is to see whether we, as a large employer in the region, can play a role in finding and providing internships, work placements and volunteer work.” Here, too, collaboration with different stakeholders is of great importance. “I think we’re all on the same page as to where we want to go. We’re in the process of making a structural change, setting up initiatives that can last a long time if need be.”

Refugee Project Maastricht

Alongside this “formal system”, as Hospers calls it, many UM staff and students are involved in volunteer work. One example is the Refugee Project Maastricht, founded by the student Aurelia Streit in January 2015. “I knew that a lot of young people wanted to do something to help refugees and asylum seekers”, she says. “So we figured it would be a good idea to establish a platform for dialogue between international students and asylum seekers housed in Maastricht, in order to create mutual understanding and exchange.

”In under two years, the Refugee Project has evolved into a solid student organisation which collaborates with the asylum seeker centre and the university. Volunteers organise regular language courses, sports activities and social events such as dinners and poetry nights. “We have been overwhelmed by positivity right from the outset”, Streit says. “The asylum seekers are really happy just to meet and connect with different people, and the students are very curious. Of course there are difficult moments sometimes. We never ask people directly how or why they ended up here, yet sometimes you hear stories that are just heartbreaking. That definitely has an impact, and only motivates you to keep going.”

Hospers: “It’s fantastic that students are willing to devote their time to an important social issue, and the formal and student initiatives really complement each other. Together, we can make people feel welcome here.” Streit: “I think Maastricht University is unique in this respect, and I hope many universities will follow its example.”

Nine refugees began studying at Maastricht University this year.

Here, two of them share their experiences.

“I’m going to love it here”

“I was born in Armenia, but I wouldn’t say I’m from there. I’m from the world.” Meet Nacho (23), who ended up in the Netherlands after fleeing his home two and a half years ago. He is now studying Psychology at the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience.“

In Armenia, I studied political science and human rights at Yerevan State University”, Nacho says. But while living in the asylum seeker centre, his interest was piqued in psychology. “I discovered online psychology courses on YouTube and I got hooked. I decided that, instead of completing my bachelor’s in political science, I wanted to start a new programme altogether. So here I am.”


Nacho describes the past years as “tough”. He came to the Netherlands alone, for reasons he prefers not to talk about. He lived in various asylum seeker centres around the country, where he took language and integration courses.

“From the very beginning I told myself, you’re here, so get used to it. You have no choice, you know? I’d go to the library to read about the Netherlands, about its customs and norms. I learnt the language and took the initiative to make Dutch friends. When I look back, I actually didn’t spend a lot of time inside the asylum seeker centre. I was constantly going out, looking for opportunities to meet new people. I’m not saying it’s easy, but of course it’s easier than the challenges you’ve faced in your home country. So you should be ready to take the initiative. I ended up having friends all over the country, and I love visiting them.”


Nacho, who enrolled in the English track of the bachelor's in Psychology after coming through the decentralised selection procedure, chose UM for its international character. “The great thing is that I don’t feel like a foreigner here. For someone who has a history of being an asylum seeker and being a bit discriminated against, it’s very important to be part of an international community.”

Another thing which appealed to him was Problem-Based Learning (PBL). “I first experienced it during last year’s Open Day and I have to say, it was a surprise to me. In Armenia we have a more traditional system, where hundreds of students sit and listen to the lecturer, which I find quite boring. So I immediately loved the PBL system. It’s just very different and it seems it’s working out for me.”

Nacho is confident about the future, and very happy about his choice to study psychology. “Being born in a post-Soviet country in a period of war, I’ve experienced a lot”, he explains. “Even when I was just a kid, I was already very interested in human behaviour. Later on I see myself as a social psychologist, and perhaps I’ll do a PhD. I’m not sure yet. But I know I’m going to love it, these three years.”

“I want to get my dream job”

Before Selman Housain (36) was forced to leave Syria in 2014, he had spent nine years working as a senior medical and quality engineer in a hospital. Now he and his family are trying to build a new life in Maastricht, where he recently started his master’s in Healthcare Policy, Innovation and Management at the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences.

“When I arrived in the Netherlands, I knew I’d have to start life again from scratch. In the beginning it was complicated. I had to deal with a new culture and a different language. An asylum seeker centre is a difficult place to start life anew: you either destroy it or build it up.” Housain came to the Netherlands alone, leaving behind his two children and his wife, who was pregnant at the time. By the time they were reunited almost a year later, his son was nine months old.

Asylum seeker centre

“Those first months, I decided to just think about the future and put all my energy into learning Dutch, for language is the key to a new life. I started to read a lot. I read everything I could find about the history, culture and geography of the Netherlands. That way I learnt to understand Dutch people and how to deal with them.”

In the asylum seeker centre, he kept himself busy helping others. He translated, taught basic Dutch to fellow asylum seekers and helped them to activate bank accounts, sign rental contracts and prepare documents for family reunions. He also got in touch with as many Dutch universities as he could, knowing that an additional master’s degree would increase his chances in the labour market.

“In Syria, I studied engineering and had a master’s degree in management. I realised that if I wanted to continue my career in the healthcare sector, I would need to understand the specifics of Dutch healthcare system. I’m ambitious; I want to get my dream job. You know what’s funny? When I came here, I didn’t like the healthcare system at all. I felt that it took a long time to get medications and treatment. Now I understand it better, I think it’s one of the best healthcare systems in the world.”


For Housain and his family, a new chapter in life has begun. He is satisfied with his choice for Maastricht University. “Lately, I’ve started considering doing a PhD here, or working as a lecturer”, he says. “I’m a very hard worker and I like to study, so who knows what will happen. If possible, I would like to stay in Maastricht. The city has a rich culture and background, and the people are open minded. I like that.”

Harm Hospers (1957) studied psychology in Groningen and joined the UM Department of Health Education in 1985. He obtained his PhD and transferred to the Faculty of Psychology in 1999, where he was appointed Director of Studies and member of the Faculty Board. He became the dean of University College Maastricht in 2009. Two years later, he was also appointed Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Sciences. Hospers currently holds the chair in Applied Health Psychology and serves as Vice Rector for Education and director of EdLab.

Aurelia Streit (1994) studied European Studies at the UM Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. She is the founder and leader of the Refugee Project Maastricht, for which she was awarded the Student Award 2015. She is currently enrolled in the Master in Public Policy and Human Development at UNU Merit.




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