By Marie Linne Dalal contacted me during my fieldwork among refugees who aspire to study in the Netherlands. She agreed to meet with me for an interview, to talk about her experiences as a refugee and as a student in the VASVU programme at VU University Amsterdam. It is a 9 month long programme, that tries to function as a bridging programme for international students before they enter a Dutch Bachelors programme. About 80 percent of the students are refugees, and the course provides them with the basics in different subjects. It is mostly set up with the aim to bring everyone to the same level, enabling them to enter a Dutch university programme afterwards easier. At the same time it is already a sort of integrational course, to get students used to the language, pace and the way of studying in the Netherlands.
We meet in front of the book shop in the main building of the university. Dalal is nineteen and from the north of Iraq. A young girl, with long dark hair and big green eyes that always look a little bit as if she has a question, hesitant to ask. She highlighted them with eyeliner, a swinging black streak. Dalal is slim and not very tall, she seems fragile and speaks very soft and quietly. In the beginning it is sometimes hard to understand her, while we are sitting in a booth in the main building of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Due to the wide and open construction of the building, it gets very loud when lectures end and streams of students pop out of rooms. The hall is then filled with voices and laughter.
Dalal is accompanied by a friend, who asks if she can join our interview. Her appearance seems different from Dalal; she does not wear make up or jewellery, has her hazelnut brown hair in a pony tail and is dressed practically rather than fashionably or flashy. The girls tell me that they don’t see eye to eye on little things like clothes or music, but how they think about life is the same. They are best friends. Shaza, Dalal’s friend, is from Syria and they met when they arrived in the first camp in the Netherlands. During that time they became close friends.
When I ask Dalal about her first day in the programme she said: “Well the best part was seeing her!” They did not know about each other’s participation in the programme so they were very happy to meet again, after losing touch whilst getting transfered to different places. “I dont know where I would be if I would not have her”, Dalal says. “She encouraged me so many times when I was feeling down.” and Shaza responds: “She did the same, we support each other. We know how it is… we share the situation. And we both want to help others in our life, thats also why I want to study medicine.”
Dalal wants to study dentistry or pharmacy. She remembers in her village back home they did not have a dentist and she remembers the people in pain, especially her mother. Therefore, she always aspired to help others somewhere in similar situations, after her studies.
Dalal’s family left Iraq because it was almost impossible for the children to study in the unstable circumstances of the country. She tells me they had no electricity, bad water, missing infrastructure and no heating in her village – but all of that she did not mind, she got used to it. What she couldn’t bare was the thought of a life without purpose, without the possibility of education and a fulfilling job. “If we just live, without direction, without meaning… Why do we live?”, she said.
One year after they left home, ISIS entered the same region, attacking, kidnapping and killing a lot of people, people from her village, her street; friends, neighbours, family. Like Dalal and her family most of the habitants of that region are Yazidi, a religious minority, which is the reason they were targeted by ISIS. She said, back then, in August 2014, she did not know what was going on in her hometown. As there was no telephone or internet connection it was impossible to find out what was happening.
She suffered, not knowing about the people she grew up with. She felt powerless and she cried for three weeks, every day. She could not eat and got sick. She organized demonstrations in her Dutch home town Almere, tried to help with donating money to the region, money that never reached the right place and got even more depressed about that fact. “I couldn’t do anything, I just cried. I couldn’t study, nothing… At that time I was in two worlds: the Netherlands and back home. But really I was not there or here. Actually, I was nowhere.”
That is why Dalal and Shaza want to concentrate on the future. They want to study to make this world a safer place. They want to help people in need. This helps them leaving their past behind and turning it into a meaningful future life trajectory. The situation the girls were confronted with led them to assess the meaning and purpose of their lives, and it might have made them wiser and stronger than others their age. Their alleged weakness, being a refugee, they have made it their strength. With a sense of hope for the future, the girls want to improve not only their own lives but the lives of others around them.
They thanked me for wanting to tell their stories: “We dont want people to think refugees just want something, we want to give something, we have to offer something. And we are working hard for that.”
Marie Linne holds an MA Social and Cultural Athropology