“What was school like today?” Narmin asks Rami at the Woudestein Campus. Generally, they meet at Starbucks, but today they are doing things differently. Rami has embarked on a degree in civil engineering at Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences this month. Together, Rami and Narmin did their research on how to give Rami the best shot at a proper future. Narmin accompanied Rami when he attended open days, helped him scour websites and provided input on all the various pros and cons. In the end, Rami opted for this particular degree programme. He is very happy to be a student again, although things are strange, due to the coronavirus epidemic: “We are doing all our practicals in one single day, which lasts from 8am until 6pm.”

“I was a mechanical engineering student at the University of Damascus and wanted to do a similar type of degree here,” says Rami. To this end, he followed Erasmus University’s bridging programme. In order to help him sort out some practical issues during that bridging programme, the UAF matched him with Narmin, who is a fiscal economics student. Rami has by now been granted a residence permit, has his own bedsit in Rotterdam and has been given the green light to get a degree, but the road to the Netherlands and obtaining the right papers was complex. He doesn’t really want to talk about it. “It’s a long story,” he says, sighing.

Group assignments

Rami would rather talk about how Narmin has been helping him. “It’s really great,” he says. The idea behind the mentorship was that mentor and mentee see each other regularly for at least half a year. It worked for Rami and Narmin, who are still in touch. He regards her as a big sister of sorts: “I can tell her everything. Practical school-related issues such as the registration procedure, words I don’t understand, but other things, too.” When the coronavirus outbreak began, it became harder for them to keep seeing each other, but they stayed in touch through WhatsApp. “My main job was to coach, advise and motivate him,” says Narmin. “For instance, I would tell him about his options with regards to his studies. And sometimes he’ll have culture-related questions. For example, group assignments are done slightly differently in the Netherlands. Rami was confronted with someone who was not contributing to a group assignment. I told him how to bring the matter up with the other person, and also told him that it’s completely normal in the Netherlands to tell people if you don’t agree with what they’re doing.”

The bridging programme Rami attended is a programme taught by Erasmus University’s Language & Training Centre (LTC) called ‘Preparatory Year for Erasmus Degree’. The LTC developed the programme to prepare refugees with residence permits for higher education in the Netherlands. UAF spokesman Jasper Vink says that the UAF pays the programme’s tuition fees on behalf of the refugees. “You see, DUO (the Dutch Education Executive, which issues student loans – ed.) doesn’t cover the fees associated with the bridging programme, even though it significantly improves refugees’ chances of being admitted to regular degree programmes in the Netherlands.”

The foundation matches refugee students to mentors: people who are the same age they are, and preferably have similar interests, too. “In the last five years, we have matched over 750 refugees to students. Initially, it was to be a temporary project, but since it was so successful, we decided to make it a permanent component of our programme. After all, mentors are often highly valuable in learning the local language, getting accustomed to the Dutch education system and learning about Dutch education institutions. Above all, they are buddies who will help you during the first stage of your studies,” says Vink.

A real fighter

Rami’s mentor Narmin, who came to the Netherlands from Azerbaijan as a teenager herself, saw a call for mentors on the university’s intranet and was keen to join the UAF project. “I know what it’s like to have to get used to a new culture and learn a new language, and I want to help others do so. So I signed up.” She is enjoying the experience. “I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s not a one-way street, as some people think. It’s more like an exchange of thoughts. I learn a lot from him and his attitude to life, as well.”

Such as? “He’s a real fighter. He simply won’t give up. At his age, he has had to build a completely new social, private and professional life for himself in a strange country. It’s incredible to see how quickly he’s doing it and how he perseveres even when he encounters setbacks.” Rami smiles and says softly: “Dank je wel (thank you).”

The UAF is recruiting new mentors. If you are interested, please sign up on the UAF’s website. 

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