Report – De Vluchtroute #3: Work & Education

What are the possibilities for refugees to gain more access to work and education?

On Monday the 14th of December 2015, the third edition of the program De Vluchtroute took place at Pakhuis de Zwijger. This edition focused on ‘work and education’ for refugees and posed the question: within the current policy, what can we do or change to increase access to work and education for refugees? The program was moderated by Nadia Moussaid. This is a short report of the evening.

Part 1: Education

UAF: Foundation for Refugee Students

The first speaker of the evening is Mardjan Seighali, director of the UAF, who stresses the importance for refugees to study and work. The UAF supports refugee students financially. Mardjan herself has a history as a refugee as well, and she emphasizes the importance of society to have an open attitude towards refugees, especially at the labour market, in order to give refugees the opportunity to develop themselves.

Baraa Alnawakil, a recent UAF graduate, shares his experiences. This summer, he got his Master’s degree in Business Information Management at the UVA. He pleads for more visibility of the universities for refugees. What do they have to offer for refugees? Also Mardjan thinks that there should be a greater responsibility of the education institutions. There should be a better provision of information for refugees according the possibilities for education. It would be good if refugees who are living in the refugee centres are already approached by universities instead of the UAF.

The policy of the municipality of Amsterdam
The second speaker of the evening is Jan van Oord, from the municipality of Amsterdam (gemeente Amsterdam). Jan was closely engaged with the development of the Beleidskader Vluchtelingen, the policy that was developed around refugees for the next coming three years. The municipality developed different programs with several education institutions to make education more accessible for refugees. Jan stresses the importance of an active attitude of refugees themselves in their search for education and work.

Two of the education institutions that are working with the municipality are the HvA and the VU. Kees Smit of the VU talks about the special prepatory program (VASVU) that the VU offers for foreign students. The program exists of a language course and additional education, which is necessary for an admission to further studies, like training in computer skills or knowledge about Western history.

The HvA offers a similar program, allowing students to prepare for a study program in the Netherlands. Marjolijn Kaak from the HvA explains that they pay special attention to Dutch language lessons, as most courses at the HvA are in Dutch. The HvA program focusses on several social skills as well. Kees emphasizes the shared responsibility of both educational institutions and the Dutch government to set up more preparatory programs.

In the first part of the open discussion there is a focus on what needs to be changed and the current possibilities for a better collaboration between different parties. The most important result of the discussion is about how information is provided to refugees, and that it should be done better in order to improve access to the different programs being offered.

Bengin Dawod (Syrian architect) pleads for more activities in the refugee center so that people can already start learning and building a network.

Annette Kouwenhoven of the Wereldhuis explains that an active attitude for refugees is important. The Wereldhuis organizes many programs that discourages passivity, which is very harmful for refugees as they feel personally and socially useless. John (ex-refugee) agrees with Annette’s story. He shares how he improves his own situation with projects through the Wereldhuis; for the past 5,5 years, he has been leading his own discussion group. By doing such activities he improves his emotional and social abilities and he develops a network, which is a form of education as well.

Bo Kanters from the ASKV calls for changes in the law: it is extremely harmful and even unhealthy that people who are awaiting their status are not allowed not work. They cannot even do voluntary work. The ASKV is searching for evidence, for example from a medical and psychiatric angle, to prove that the law needs to be changed.

The HvA advocates for a free online course, which every refugee can follow as soon as they arrive in the Netherlands. But for this, the internet that’s often not available in refugee centers, needs to be improved.

In the audience is a volunteer of the emergency shelter ‘Havenstraat’ in Amsterdam. At Havenstraat, she says, refugees are extremely motivated, but they simply do not know where they should start. The provision of information about what they can do, especially in the waiting time of their procedure, is extremely bad.

Dorine Manson, Director of VluchtelingenWerk, stresses that, despite the fact that refugees don’t know the outcome of their procedure, it is still important to already offer language courses in the refugee centers; it is good to invest in the refugees as soon as possible.

Also present during this meeting was Syrian Volunteers in the Netherlands. This organization develops programs for culture exchange: they inform refugees in order to create a better understanding of the Dutch culture, and vice versa. They state that, for example, to accept homosexuality in the Netherlands, the refugees first need to know on what ideas the Dutch attitude is based.

Between the first part about education and the second part about work, Paul Mbikayi, former refugee from Congo and former ambassador of tolerance, shared some inspiring words. Paul stresses that the importance of work for refugees is huge. But he also highlighted the difficult of dealing with cultural differences; cultural differences go beyond just language barriers. Paul also stressed the active role refugees should have. In order for talents to be seen, they have to be presented.

Part 2: Work

In the second part two organizations present themselves. Desiree van Houten talks about how the organization Mensely, part of Arboned, is looking for new company doctors because of the aging in this specific sector. With their program they are specifically looking for new doctors in the new group of refugees that came to the Netherlands. Mensely also works together with the UAF, and again language seems to be the biggest barrier.

Rikko Voorberg from Incubators for Immigrants just started his initiative. Their organization helps refugees to found their own start-up. They don’t jyst do this to improve the working climate for refugees, but mostly to speed up refugees their asylum procedures. The idea of Incubators for Immigrants is a perfect example of out-of-the-box thinking: because the Netherlands aim to be a start-up country, the IND makes a faster procedure for refugees who want to found a start-up. Incubators for Immigrants offers legal help in developing start-ups, and by this they help refugees with a faster procedure.

Within the second part of the discussion, more different opinions are brought up. The focus points are cultural differences, discrimination and the importance of a central information point for refugees.

Femke Bijlsma from the Refugee Company talks about a project of their organization they started years ago, called ‘Papa’s and Mama’s, where they connect refugee families with Dutch families. Femke says about their organization: ‘We believe in the entrepreneurial strength of refugees. By building up one’s own business, the newcomer can provide a positive contribution to the Dutch economy and society. And with many new businesses in operation, new jobs are created, for refugees and locals alike. We are in business. Please join us.’

The conversation took a turn to illegal work practices carried out by refugees, in the absence and prohibition of work. This is how the conversation turned back to legislation. As said before, the law is difficult to change, and the conclusion remains that we have to find creative solutions to, in a legal way, get around the law.

Nanne Brouwer from the ROC Amsterdam tells that they are working on building a platform, for the middle educated group, to connect the part of education, social integration and work-related stories. He asks everybody who is able to contribute to the platform, online as well as offline, to contact him. According to Nanne, it is really important refugees their tories are shared and heard.

The discussion ends with a remark that refugees also need to get the chance to do things on their own. ‘The amount of volunteers is that big, that refugees can’t even make their own sandwich!’

All in all, the third Vluchtroute was an evening full of stories, ideas and encounters. The most heard question of the evening was: why aren’t organizations more visible and why is it so difficult for refugees to find the right information about work and education? To watch the whole program back, click here for the live stream.

The fourth edition of the De Vluchtroute: Re-Framing borders will take place at Pakhuis de Zwijger February 11.