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Five years ago, Recep fled from Turkey; he is now a university teacher

For fifteen years, Recep Uysal carried out research on positive psychology in Turkey; it is even the subject of his PhD. That was until he had to flee Turkey and start again from scratch in the Netherlands. Re-entering the academic world was a challenge, but he rediscovered his love for the field in the research group headed by psychologist Anke Klein.

Refugee researchers wanting to pursue their academic work in the Netherlands are not given adequate support. This is the conclusion drawn by KNAW in a report published at the end of January. There is a lack of funding for temporary grants and appointments, and there is a pressing need for a national structure for providing reception facilities, support and information. If there is anyone who has experienced how indispensable such a scholarship and good guidance are, it is Recep Uysal. He and Leiden psychologist Anke Klein have been conducting research together for three years now: a learning experience for both. Klein: 'I so admire how Recep, despite everything he has been through, always remains positive.' 

Recep Uysal
Recep Uysal

Positive psychology

Almost five years ago, Uysal and his wife and two children had to flee Turkey for political reasons. They came to the Netherlands, where they were moved from one asylum centre to another: first Maastricht, then Apeldoorn. At the same time as looking for a home base for his family, Uysal was also trying to continue his academic career.  ‘I always dreamt of becoming a professor in positive psychology,’ he says. Via a friend, he heard of the NWO’s Hestia grant, that connects refugee academics with current research projects, broadening their opportunities for resuming their career.

To his delight, Uysal was able to join Klein’s research team, and under her guidance he started research on the role of self-effectiveness in treating anxiety symptoms in children: if you believe that you can overcome an obstacle - however difficult it may appear – does that confidence increase your chance of success?

'I always dreamt of becoming a professor in positive psychology.’- Recep Uysal

Not all the data from their research is available yet, but Uysal’s own life suggests that determination makes a big difference. As well as the Hestia grant, together with Klein he also acquired a Scholar Rescue Fund from America, which meant he was able to continue his research project until the autumn of 2022. For several months now, he has been working as a teacher in Pedagogics at InHolland University of Applied Sciences in Amsterdam, as well as following a study programme in cognitive behavioural therapy himself.   

A lot of hard work

When Uysal first met Klein, he told her of his ambition to become a professor. She wanted to help him achieve that ambition, although the reality proved more difficult than they expected. ‘The academic world in Turkey is very different, and calls for other skills. In Turkey, you can become a professor once you have written several articles, or an academic book. In the Netherlands, the citation factor is high and it’s important to publish in leading journals. Not only that, you need to acquire a lot of grants early in your career.  Performance pressure and competition are high.’  

Uysal recently attended a meeting of the UAF, a foundation that helps refugees find a job that is in line with their education and experience.  ‘I heard at the meeting that only 11 per cent of refugees with a doctorate resume their academic career here.’ 

'It was hard for me to see that Recep worked incredibly hard, but that wasn’t enough.’ Anke Klein

After six months of very hard work, in which the start of their research was impacted by corona, they had to conclude that it would not be possible for Uysal to become a professor. ‘It was hard for me,’ says Klein,’ to see that Recep had so much ambition, worked incredibly hard and was always so positive, and still that wasn’t enough because the standards here are so high. The same applies for Dutch researchers; as a doctoral researcher or postdoc, the criteria you are expected to meet are sky-high.’  

Recep Uysal and Anke Klein

Other paths to success

Klein and Uysal decided to change the conversation: they would no longer try to publish articles at breakneck speed, but would look for alternative paths to success.  Uysal: ‘If our first plan wasn’t going to work, what else could we do? What can I work towards now?’

A position as teacher in a university of applied sciences was within reach. As well as teaching in Pedagogics, Uysal also hopes to be able to join the research team. ‘But this is an orientation year for me. I’m a foreigner in a new system, and the university is also a new environment for me. It’s a great opportunity to improve my Dutch while making use of my expertise at the same time.’

Post-traumatic growth

What does it mean to live a good life? How do you stay hopeful in difficult times? What is success, and is a successful life the same as a meaningful life? Uysal has been researching questions like these for 20 years and fanatically incorporates these insights into his attitude to life. He did this before he had to flee with his family, but even more so now. 'When I stand in front of the class, I always smile and try to notice the small, positive things.'

'When we first came to the Netherlands, I often felt guilty towards my children.’ - Recep Uysal

One important issue for him is post-traumatic growth. ‘It’s about how we as humans recover our resilience after a trauma; the idea that traumatic experiences can also have another side, and can even affect your life in a positive way.’ He recognises this in himself. ‘I believe that with all the experiences I’ve had, through having to flee my country, I have become more competent; I feel more self-empowered. I see so many opportunities to contribute to society,  the university, and the people I work with.'


Practising self-compassion has also helped Uysal during difficult times. 'When we first came to the Netherlands, I felt guilty towards my children. I blamed myself for putting them in this situation; they had no say in the matter, did they? Later I realised I could be more compassionate towards myself.’

In their discussions, Klein and Uysal often came to the conclusion that in society, and in the academic world, we put a lot of emphasis on things that may not really be important.  Klein: ‘Are that senior position and the money really important, or is it more about your passion for your specialist field? I’m much happier when I’m doing what I enjoy rather than working like a fiend. Recep once said to me: “Aren’t you disappointed in me, now that things haven’t turned out as we planned?”  I told him: “No, far from it. This is your path and I’m happy that you have found your own way forward. That gives me a lot of pleasure and satisfaction.”’ 

For the young generation

Over the years, Klein and her four children have talked a lot about Uysal. ‘I talk about everything at home including things about Recep: how difficult it is to flee your country; how grateful we should be that we are safe here. And how important it is to have compassion for one another, because we are all in this life together.’ 

Klein and Uysal want to convey that message to the younger generation: to their students, the young people they treat, but also to their own children. Uysal: 'I think it's important that my children are independent, and that they see that ultimately you become happy in your work by helping others, and being able to do that with wonderful people.'

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