Foto: Anja Robertus

Availability of university admission essential for refugees

Marjolein de Jong8 November 2022

Halleh Ghorashi (60) fled to the Netherlands from Iran in the 1980s and became professor of diversity and integration at VU Amsterdam. „Universities can make a huge difference to refugees."

VUfonds is fundraising for scholarships for refugee students in its first annual campaign. What do you think of that? 

„Such scholarships are much needed. When I look at government policy over the past twenty years, I have to conclude that it doesn’t work. Many asylum seekers arriving in the Netherlands end up on the sidelines, unable to participate for a long time. So much talent and opportunities are lost because of this. Universities have the chance to make a difference here. We should be approaching refugees proactively saying, if you want to study or be given the opportunity to obtain a PhD, we have resources to help you. It would make a real difference to the lives of refugees."

What kinds of policies do you think aren’t working?

„I arrived in the Netherlands as a refugee in the 1980s. At that time I needed to wait three years for a decision on my asylum application. In the meantime, I wasn’t allowed to do anything. That’s still the case today. Such a wait is disastrous for people who come from unsafe situations and suddenly find themselves in a safe society. The past constantly repeats in their heads while, at the same time, they’re unable to plan for the future. Research has demonstrated that some people’s trauma is exacerbated in the Netherlands. Or that they even suffer new traumas."

„What helped me at the time was that, although it wasn’t actually permitted, I was able to start unofficially at the VU. I learned the language within a year and was able to continue the study I’d already been doing in Iran. I didn’t need to wait and was able to start straight away participating in university life. It meant I could make friends and very quickly become part of society. That was crucial for my later success."

So, you’re talking about more than scholarships.

„Absolutely. Even if people don’t qualify for a scholarship, universities can still do a lot, such as teaching undocumented refugees. An important step was the joint covenant on access for undocumented students at university, which Vrije Universiteit signed together with other higher education institutions and the municipality of Amsterdam."

„They can also give a place within academia to refugee journalists or leaders of diverse communities, such as the women and LHBTI+ communities, so they can write their theses, for example. In recent years, I wrote a publication on the Iranian women’s movement featuring Iranian scholars who had found temporary sanctuary at the VU."

„For universities, it’s also an opportunity to show that they’re involved and that they’re not just propagating empty messages. I now also see that churches are playing a huge role when the government’s reception of refugees doesn’t run smoothly. It’s not just about criticising the policy but also thinking about your own role in this dilemma."

You’re doing a lot of research into the image of refugees. What key points have emerged?

„When I fled to the Netherlands, the perception was that refugees were pitiful and needed help. That perception didn’t match the image I had of myself. The perception has now tilted towards refugees being dangerous, especially male refugees. They form a risk to society. And refugees arriving by boat aren’t ‘real’ refugees; they’re just here to take advantage of our affluence. I keep asking myself what view of humanity this represents. It’s a view based on distrust. These people don’t look like us so they’re not true human beings. It’s a notion that really saddens me."

What would have happened to you if you hadn’t found your way to the university? 

„Like very many other talented refugees who have arrived in the Netherlands, I would probably have become depressed. It’s a picture that also emerges in my research. I’ve seen people around me fall into an impossible void and have never managed to find their way out. I have also been through a lot and my studies helped me give those elements from my past a place in the present. Studying enabled me to make peace with the past. Most importantly, I’ve been able to analyse all the violence I experienced, which has reduced its effect on my life. Those memories do come back when Iran is in turmoil like it is now, but they’re not constant."

„So much is possible with will and perseverance. I can say with 100 per cent certainty that when people are given the opportunity to build their lives, it guarantees a better future. For them and for our society."

If you would like to contribute to scholarships for refugee students, read more about this VUfonds project on here.