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Refugees build a new future in Leiden

Solafa Saad (29) fled her homeland of Sudan for the Netherlands in 2016. She is now following the Leiden Preparatory Year (VGL), an initiative by Leiden University, Leiden University of Applied Sciences and the Foundation for Refugee Students (UAF) that prepares young refugees to study. ‘I regained by self-confidence during VJL.’

‘When I arrived in the Netherlands at the end of 2016, I knew all of the clichés about the country: that it’s flat, that there are lots of windmills and bikes and that it’s a monarchy. That’s what I had learned at school, in lessons about Europe. Now I know the country a lot better.

‘I was studying Management Information Systems, computer programming for managers, in Sudan. Not because I thought it was such a great programme, but because I really wanted to go to university and my grades at secondary school entitled me to a grant for that programme. You don’t get to choose what you study if you don’t have much money or the right contacts. And I had neither. I fled because I was actively campaigning for a whole range of fundamental human rights: for women, children, gay people... I had a lot of followers on Facebook and was co-founder of an organisation that helped poor children. I was also active in an organisation that helped the homeless. The Sudanese government considers campaigners and volunteers to be dangerous people because they can spread ideas that don’t suit the government. I’ve been sent to prison several times.

‘When I came to the Netherlands on my own, without family, life was very hazy. It was one black hole. By working hard and learning Dutch, I’ve managed to find my feet again. I want to study International Relations at the University next year. I hope it will help me understand conflicts and how to solve them. I want to find answers to many questions. Then I want a job where I can help make the world a better place: as an ambassador, for instance, or working at a multinational, the Court of Justice or the UN. I don’t know which yet.’

Critical thinking

‘My first step towards this future is VJL. My contact person at the municipality told me about it, and I started September last year. I’m doing courses in Dutch, study skills, social studies, history and English because my native language is Arabic. This year is proving really useful. The style of teaching took some getting used to. In Sudan, it was about acquiring as much knowledge as possible whereas here in the Netherlands it’s more about understanding the material. And culture is part of that. For instance, a Dutch text that we have to analyse is about the role of the king in a parliamentary democracy. And you are asked your opinion in the exercises, which encourages critical thinking. That is good because it’s what I want: critical thinking. Not just repeating what “the group” says. In Sudan, I was constantly told that what I was doing was wrong. You then start to doubt yourself. During VLJ I have regained my self-confidence and that is making me stronger. And you can achieve a lot if you can be yourself.

‘VJL is a cosmopolitan environment with people from all around the world. I get on well with my classmates. You share the experience of having to leave your country behind, and I recognise their stories about war. I grew up in the countryside in rural South Sudan, a conflict area. The first thing I learned in life was to dive down if I heard a bomber coming. You were never at peace; you were always ready to take flight.

‘I now live alone, in Leiderdorp. I spend my time, studying, making contact with people and integrating. I am also in contact with Sudanese people elsewhere in Europe. I’m glad that I’m able to study in Leiden. For me it is not just any university. Lots of my Sudanese role models studied in Leiden. There’s an important African Studies Centre here and the University has a special history, with a major role for occupation, resistance and liberation. Leiden University has a special place in my heart.’

This article was previously published in Leidraad, the free alumni magazin of Leiden University.  The entire magazine can be viewed online (in Dutch).

Text: Friederike de Raat
Photos: Marius Roos
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Leiden Preparatory Year

Leiden University and Leiden University of Applied Sciences established Leiden Preparatory Year (VJL) three years ago. The aim is to offer highly educated refugees aged between 18 and 30 an ‘interim year’ in which they can prepare to study at one of the two universities. Most of them are Syrians, but there are also refugees from Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, Eritrea and Congo. The refugees follow the courses that they will need for their studies, such as Dutch, English and History. As many refugees have been unable to take school-leaving exams, they have to take the state examination here to gain admission to one of the universities. ‘The students all follow their own set of courses in VJL, depending on their chosen degree programme,’ says Hildegard Aerden, the coordinator of VJL. Most students choose a medical programme or a programme in the social/legal field, such as International Relations. Of the refugees who are doing VJL, about 80% actually go on to study. Almost a third of them choose Leiden University and the rest go to the University of Applied Science. VJL is funded by the two universities and supported by UAF. The refugees pay for the Dutch lessons themselves out of their own language budget.

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