Business students Sofia Ali en Tania Bhulai founded Diandre: where students can help refugees

Business students Sofia Ali en Tania Bhulai are two early contributors to Challenge Accepted, and also good examples of how students can give back to society. Last year they started with their foundation, Diandre, which is aimed at helping refugees who are going to study at the university – as well as refugees who would like to start a small business – with all sorts of information. They were both born outside of the Netherlands and know from personal experience how difficult it can sometimes be to function in a completely different society.

How did you come up this idea, to help refugees?
‘We were both “taalbuddies”, doing volunteer work for TTC (Taal & Trainingscentrum EUR): helping somebody with language questions and other stuff, one hour a week. But we noticed that the questions we got from refugees who wanted to study at Erasmus were about more than language. They face all kind of difficulties. Dutch manners are different than those at universities from their hometowns. Different courses, different forms. So we wanted to help students from other countries to feel more at ease at Erasmus, give them a place where they can get some useful information.’ 

Sofia Ali just finished her Bachelor Business Administration, she combines working for Diandre with her second Bachelor Philosophy at FW. Her parents are originally from Somalia but they fled to Ethiopia. When Sofia was five years old and the situation in Somalia hadn’t improved, they decided to come to the Netherlands. She says: ‘I know how a status holder or a refugee feels because I was one. My dad for example had degrees, but they weren’t appreciated as much in the Netherlands. He had to start from scratch and do everything all over again.’

Tania Bhulai is finishing her Bachelor Business Administration at RSM. She was born in Suriname and came to the Netherlands ten years ago. Although she already spoke Dutch, she still had to overcome and learn a lot of Dutch customs. She says: ‘Ever since I can remember I’ve been interested in businesses. Last year I did a Minor in social entrepreneurship. It draws my attention. I would like to start up a business and at the same time help other people.’

'So we wanted to help students from other countries to feel more at ease at Erasmus, give them a place where they can get some useful information.’

Sofia Ali and Tania Bhulai, business students and founders of Diandre

What is Diandre’s main focus?
‘We found out there is a big need for university-related information, like: how to behave? What does the dean do? And what’s a study advisor for and how to find one? We gave a workshop for sixteen status holders who are going to study next year. We also want to give them a network: it’s nice if they can meet Dutch students as well. But the main focus will be entrepreneurship. We found out that a lot of low-skilled refugees need our help even more so than highly-skilled refugees. A lot of low-skilled newcomers (refugees and people on the dole) would like to work and start little businesses, but don’t know how. We work partly together with the local government of Rotterdam. The government helps these people with setting up a business plan, and then Diandre helps them beyond that point. We can help with several questions, such as: how to do marketing, how to get a logo, a website, a network.’

Some people tend to think that ‘newcomers’ like to use our welfare system and are happy to stay on their couch?
‘We have the example of a man who wanted to become a tailor but he didn’t dare to make a start and was on the dole. Now he has his own little business in Rotterdam and it’s thriving. He has a lot of customers and he is happy. A lot of people really want to work and do something, and sometimes they are very good at certain things, but it is hard for them to start. They lack the language, knowledge of regulations, or they lack a network. Starting little businesses in town is good for them but also good for Rotterdam, and for the economy on the whole. Small businesses are good for the city.’

Will you be working full-time for Diandre in the future?
Tania: ‘Yes I would like to. I like the fact that we can really help people, people who don’t have the possibilities or knowledge but who have a lot of ambition and motivation. Every time we talk to a refugee from the program of local government of Rotterdam, this person is so enthusiastic. The people we meet really would like to work.’

Will you invite students to join the initiative?
‘Yes, we definitely want to work together with students. I’d like to encourage students to do something good for our society. There are already a lot of students who would like to do something but lack the opportunity to really use their knowledge to do something positive.’

More information

Challenge Accepted is a joint campaign of Erasmus University Rotterdam and Erasmus Trustfonds. They are leading the way in tackling the grand challenges of the 21st century together with academics, students and alumni. Tania Bhulai and Sofia Ali are early contributors. You can find and contact them – and a lot of other students and alumni – on EUR Connect.