June 20th marks World Refugee Day. Proclaimed by the United Nations, on this day, there is a worldwide focus on the plight of refugees to remind people to continue to look for solutions for the millions of refugees worldwide who are still looking for a better future. On the occasion of this memorable day, we spoke with Shabnam Akbari, a student with refugee status who is connected to EUR. Shabnam is 24 years old and is about to complete the Erasmus Preparatory Year, a year to prepare students who are refugees for a study in higher education in the Netherlands.
Hi Shabnam! Can you tell us something more about yourself?
'My name is Shabnam, and I am originally from Afghanistan, but I lived in Pakistan for a long time. In Pakistan, I went to high school, and I followed the bachelor Business Administration for two years. However, I didn't finish the education. I had to leave the country due to bad circumstances and problems. So I had to flee.’
That was the moment you came to the Netherlands?
'Yes, that's right. I came on my own, which I found quite difficult in the beginning. I have been living in Zwijndrecht for two years and nine months now. In that early period, I went to a language school in Zwijndrecht, because I wanted to learn the language and aspired to follow a course at the university. One of my classmates from the language school told me about a special program for refugees at Erasmus University, which is called the 'Erasmus Preparatory Year’. In this program, status-holders are prepared for a study in the Netherlands. When I heard about it, I immediately knew that I had to apply. The only thing was that I just missed the application deadline, but with the help of coordinator Kevin van der Poel, I got a chance. After a strict selection procedure in which I was tested on various aspects such as my IQ and willingness, I got the message that I was selected as one of the 20 holders of refugee status who could participate in the Preparatory Year.’
What does the Erasmus Preparatory Year mean to you?
'Very much. Not only because I now have the opportunity to study here in the Netherlands, but also because it has been very good for my Dutch language development. I am also very grateful to the UAF because they are partly responsible for financing this program. In the Preparatory Year, I was able to focus on English, Dutch, Mathematics and the study skills that I need in the Dutch higher education system. This coming academic year, I will start my bachelors in Public Administration. Firstly, I wanted to do this bachelor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, but because of the "Nominal is Normal" rule at the university in which you have to earn 60 points in your first study year, I have chosen a university that does not apply that rule. Due to the language barrier, I think earning 45 study points already makes it a challenge for me. What do I want to achieve in the long term? Well, firstly, I would like to complete my education successfully. After I hope to find a good job in the Netherlands, at a municipality or the Tweede Kamer.’
What will you do on World Refugee Day this year?
'That day, I will think of the period that brought me to the Netherlands and how grateful I am that I am here now and have been given these opportunities. I must honestly say that back in Pakistan, I heard much more about activities for refugees for World Refugee Day. Here in the Netherlands, I believe there are less activities. Hopefully, that will become more. In addition, I also hope that refugees will get more opportunities for following a study in the long term. I think it is important that all refugees can follow a course. Of course, refugees need to work harder compared to Dutch students, besides the regular study courses, refugees need to learn a new language, do integration courses and need to get used to the Dutch living standards. Also, they often have to deal with personal, sometimes psychological problems.’
What can the Erasmus University learn from World Refugee Day?
'I think in general there is more attention needed for the refugee population here at the university. We can start by stimulating more contact between refugees and EUR students. It is very difficult for refugees, including myself, to get in touch with local people. That's a pity because we can learn so much from the Dutch people — not only the language but also things about the culture, for example. Besides, enhancing interaction is good for refugees in having more social contact, which in turn is good for problems such as loneliness or depression, problems that occur quite often among refugees. If we can organize an informal event every once in a while for refugees and EUR students to get acquainted, I think we can achieve a lot!’