By ANOUSKA GOEDGEBUUR
This semester, the Town & Gown’s Marhaban project began at UCU, aiming to “link UCU students with refugees of the same age through a buddy system in order to expand their social network, create more understanding between the two groups, build friendships and facilitate the integration process.”
This sounds great in theory, but it might leave you wondering how it actually works out in practice. As one of the founders and managers, I am particularly devoted to this project, and with it have become very close with the group. In just 6 weeks, these people have become some of my best friends. Therefore I would like to give you some insight into the project, the work that we do, and the people involved.
First of all, it is important to understand the background of the participants. The majority of the group consists of Syrian guys, who have made the journey to Europe by themselves.
This brings me immediately to one of the most common misunderstandings about the Syrian refugees: many of them do not flee because they live in areas that are heavily affected by the war, but to avoid military duty.
The Syrian government forces young men to join the military, which, due to the increasing severity of the conflict, is becoming unavoidable. As one of them told me, he does not see a ‘good’ side to fight for; there is no longer a side of the conflict that is truly helping Syrian people.
When you look at it from this perspective, I think most of us would also rather flee the country than end up fighting for a cause we don’t believe in, seeing all the harm done to those involved in the conflict.
“We often talk about the Syrian conflict and the refugee crisis here at UCU, but this discussion is not complete without the voice of those who have truly experienced the conflict and made the journey.”
Luckily the refugees are given the opportunity for asylum in the Netherlands and other countries in Europe. Unfortunately, however, the threat facing their families is not considered severe enough to grant them asylum as well, leaving them to undertake this journey of starting a new life in a foreign country by themselves.
Once they arrive in the Netherlands, the long process of waiting for a permanent status and a home begins. The waiting period can take several years, during which most people live in the refugee center. As they are living in a gated community, they often have difficulty integrating into society. This is why the Marhaban project is so important. It provides contact with people from the same age.
We might come from very different cultures and very different circumstances, but at the end of the day we all want the same things: we want to have fun, study, do something with our lives and enjoy time with friends. I strongly believe integration will happen naturally if you provide such an environment.
For example, one of the refugees does not speak much English or Dutch, but he is still one of the funniest and nicest people I have ever met. One day I was sitting on the back of his bike and he crossed the street while the traffic light was red so I yelled “Stoooop! Stooop!”. He finally understood what I was saying when we were already in the middle of the street and cars were coming towards us at full speed. Luckily he picked up on my next intention a bit faster when I started screaming “No, don’t stop! Go! Go! Go!”. I will always remember that as the day I realized I needed to have a talk with them about traffic rules in the Netherlands. At least after that he knew that he had to stop at a red light.
Another aspect of the project is the discussion that results from interaction with people from such a different culture. We often talk about the Syrian conflict and the refugee crisis here at UCU, but this discussion is not complete without the voice of those who have truly experienced the conflict and made the journey.
But their voice does not only add to the discussion about Syria, I think it is also extremely insightful to discuss topics like homosexuality with those who come from a region where being gay is seen as one of the worst crimes. I have spent hours discussing gender equality, foreign intervention in Syria, climate change, family values etc. and I have learned more from those discussions than during any discussion I’ve ever had with my peers at UCU. I think it can be valuable to all of us to engage in a discussion with people from a vastly different background in order to understand other perspectives and ideas.
I consider the Marhaban Project a great addition to our community here at UCU. It gives us the opportunity to truly understand a different culture, different norms and values and to gain a better understand of a crisis we talk about almost on a daily basis. But most importantly, I think it shows us just how similar we all really are, how you can have a great time with a group of people, even if you don’t share the same ideas and values or even the same language.