By Ina Schebler
— The 33 guest students who followed Dutch classes in the January intensive period received certificates during a graduation ceremony last Wednesday. The municipality and the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights complimented the students and the Right2Education initiative.
“Today is a special day,” said Dr. Ramon Puras, Vice Dean of AUC, in his speech addressing the guest students. “We are celebrating your achievement and the achievement of all who made it happen.” He stressed that the Right2Education programme was mainly a student initiative.
Nevertheless, the project also involves AUC teachers and administrative personnel and enjoys the management’s support. Ten of the 33 guest students joined regular Dutch A1 classes. The others were taught by 12 student teachers according to a program that Els van Dam, Academic Coordinator of Right2Education, developed on the basis of the official Dutch A1 program. The guest students had four three-hour classes a week and were expected to spend an additional three hours on homework.
One third of the student body was involved in facilitating their learning process and integration into the AUC community. Next to teaching and helping them with their homework, that included being a buddy for one of the guest students, cooking for them when they missed dinner in the refugee centre due to their studies, or helping to organize social events for them.
As part of the ceremony, Johan Fredsted shared his experience of being a buddy. He said that friendships were built quickly. For example, the AUC students took their buddies to dorm parties and the guest students showed them how Syrians party when they went to a concert of Syrian musician Omar Souleyman.
The graduation ceremony ran smoothly until the handover of the certificates: they had to be reprinted, because the names in Arabic were misspelled. To bridge the waiting time, Andrea Haefner, responsible for External Communication of the Right2Education board, played a video of Omar Souleyman, which led to laughter in the audience, especially among the guest students and their buddies.
One by one, all the guest students were called onto the stage to receive their certificates and a tulip. Several of the 33 guest students achieved close to 100 per cent. Teachers of regular AUC Dutch courses said the guest students’ motivation was contagious and took the whole class to a higher level.
Representatives of various institutions spoke during the graduation ceremony, including Ravic Melessen, Project Manager for the municipality and responsible for the facilities accommodating refugees in Amsterdam. He described Right2Education as “the cherry on the cake” among all projects proposed to the municipality.
“We are in a privileged position as University College students. That creates a special responsibility to create access to education for others,” said Haefner referring to the human right to education.
“It’s a privilege to be able to give,” agreed Domenica Ghidei Biidu, Deputy Human Rights Commissioner of the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights and member of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance. She hopes that all University Colleges in the Netherlands will take AUC’s initiative as an example. Another University College has already contacted Anne de Graaf, Head of studies for the Academic Core at AUC, in order to get more information on the structure of the project.
Starting this semester, another 20 guest students are following student-led Dutch A1 classes. In April a Dutch A2 program will start for those who have completed the first level of the language course. Four guest students who were studying Dutch in January are following regular AUC classes at the moment.
“We shouldn’t frame it as a refugee crisis, it’s a refugee opportunity,” said Dr. Sennay Ghebreab, Head of Studies for Social Sciences, during his speech. “Refugee opportunity became refugee students. Then they became guest students, and now they are students.” Right2Education board members also stress the use of language: in the AUC community, they should be students, not refugees. Guest student Wasim Helwani said, “We didn’t feel like we were strangers,” when he thanked the AUC community for their support.
Taking integration a step further, Puras announced that AUC wants to welcome people with refugee background as fully enrolled students. Since they often face additional obstacles like the lack of official certificates like high school diplomas, Puras said AUC would assist them in the application procedure to overcome formal difficulties. Additionally, collaboration with Dutch authorities could help refugees attain necessary documents. At least one of the guest students has already applied to start his studies as a regular AUC student next September.
This does not only enrich the international AUC community, but is also a valuable opportunity for the refugees, Ghidei Biidu said, drawing from her personal experience of being a refugee from Eritrea 35 years ago. “When you flee, you want to save your life. But once you are safe, you want meaning; you want to contribute something to the world.” Ghidei Biidu ended her speech with, “Refugee is not an identity. It is an experience.”
After the official graduation ceremony ended, guest students spontaneously demonstrated their dancing skills to Omar Souleyman’s music and celebrated their achievement with a student-organized dinner in the dorms.
Correction: It has come to the attention of the Herring that not all 33 guest students passed Dutch A1 as was stated in this article when published in March 1, 2016.