Erna Suman and her parents fled to the Netherlands when she was ten years old to escape the aftermath of the Balkan War in the 1990s. The Foundation for Refugee Students (UAF), which helps highly qualified refugees, paid Erna a special tribute last weekend because of her outstanding academic achievements.

Erna (25), who is originally from Serbia, has done very well indeed and she obtained her master degree in Criminal Law this summer. She has been working as external court clerk at Amsterdam District Court since 2012, and she carried out the research for her final project there as well. During the UAF graduation party, Erna was presented with the Kees Bleichrodt Award – named for the UAF’s director, who died in 2012 – for her ‘exceptional performance’.

You must feel very proud at winning this award!

‘I’m proud and honoured that I’ve been presented with an award named after Kees Bleichrodt. He was a true champion of human rights and an inspiring person who died much too young. And of course I’m proud of myself too for completing this study programme, which means I’ve achieved a major goal in my life. I feel that a high level of education is an absolutely essential foundation for the future.’

Your exceptional performance must be a shining example to other refugee students. Is there any advice you’d like to give them during their studies and for their future career?

‘Well, first of all, you have to have a really strong inner will to succeed. Goals are the most important thing, not dreams. If you set yourself clear targets, this usually means that motivation and perseverance follow automatically. These are the most important factors in my opinion.

Besides my own motivation and perseverance, all the encouragement I got from people around me was absolutely vital. My parents have always given me their unconditional support, and the pride and happiness I saw in their faces every time I got one step further gave me so much positive energy and encouragement to keep going.’

You’ve won a language course as well as the award. After watching the UAF’s video it sounds like your Dutch is perfectly fluent. Do you actually need this course?

‘This language course will be really useful, as I can choose what language I want to do it in. I’ll probably take the Legal English course, because I can benefit a lot from this as a lawyer. It’s essential to have a perfect command of English in the legal world, especially in view of the increasing internationalisation in our society.’

What are your plans for the future, besides your work for Amsterdam District Court?

‘I’d really like to find a job at a legal firm where I can carve out a career and develop further in a personal as well as a legal sense. And I think it’s important to use my legal knowledge for the benefit of our society.’ MvS