Empowering Refugees in the Netherlands through Education - Wittenborg University's Dr Saskia Harkema about her organisation 'Faces of Change'

As the refugee crisis in Europe deepens, the past week has seen an overwhelming surge from ordinary people reaching out to the stranded refugees. Dr Saskia Harkema, a senior lecturer from Wittenborg University, set up an organization called Faces of Change which seeks to empower refugees through education.As the refugee crisis in Europe deepens, the past week has seen an overwhelming surge from ordinary people reaching out to the stranded refugees. Dr Saskia Harkema, a senior lecturer from Wittenborg University, set up an organization called Faces of Change which seeks to empower refugees through education.

According to Harkema, who has worked with refugees for years, it can take up to 10 years for a refugee to get a residence permit in Europe. “While you wait, you are not allowed to do anything. Once you’ve received your residence permit then you first have to learn the language and only after that, when you have a certain level of Dutch or English, can you study. Often the degrees they hold are not accepted in Europe so they have to re-educate themselves which can be a problem because access to scholarships are so limited.

“These refugees are ordinary people like you and me. I have contact with a 23-year old activist trapped in one of the most severely bombed cities in Syria. He works as a clown to entertain the children and help them get their minds off the war.”

How many refugees are there in the Netherlands?

“The media gives the impression that we are overrun by refugees, which is not true,” Harkema says. “Worldwide there are 55 million refugees, but in Holland it’s not more than 250 000. We have a very restrictive policy of allowing people to come in. I also work as a visiting professor for NGO’s, teaching for instance in Kosovo. Now we are very focused on doing something for Syrian young people.”

According to Harkema there are several refugee camps in the Netherlands, some holding as many as 2 000 people. “It creates a very explosive situation. These camps are often isolated, in the woods, so the inhabitants cannot go anywhere. So you have a micro-society with all these traumatized people. There are a lot of issues and conflicts. I personally feel it is inhumane. You don’t choose to be a refugee. Of course there are always people who take advantage, but we are using those bad apples as a yardstick to judge all refugees. A whole bunch of policies have been developed with that negative idea of the refugee as a reference.”

Harkema says she was shocked the first time she visited a refugee camp in the Netherlands. “The rooms are very small. They always put two people in one room, probably as a matter of efficiency. Imagine, you have already lost everything and then you come to this country where you seek safety but you end up in a camp, in a room with someone you don’t know. Worse, sometimes you have no choice with who you share your room. For instance, if they put someone from Iran with a Syrian, it’s a very bad match because there are a lot of political issues between the two countries.”

Faces of Change

About 5 years ago Harkema started working for a foundation supporting refugees and among others coached a young woman from Rwanda who was a victim of the genocide in 1994. After doing several international projects, including with the EU, and building a vast networAs the refugee crisis in Europe deepens, the past week has seen an overwhelming surge from ordinary people reaching out to the stranded refugees. Dr Saskia Harkema, a senior lecturer from Wittenborg University, set up an organization called Faces of Change which seeks to empower refugees through education.

According to Harkema, who have worked with refugees for years, it can take up to 10 years for a refugee to get a residence permit in Europe.

“It allows me to continue with my work for refugees and also integrate my work as an academic scholar and teacher. I believe education, whether formal or informal, is key to empowering refugees and supporting them to participate in society. We develop tailor-made programs for groups of refugees, depending on their needs,” says Harkema who is an expert in innovation and entrepreneurship.

“Last year we had a programme for refugees who want to set up their own business and we support them in realizing that, for instance in how to write a business plan. It sounds basic to us, but meant the world to them. Imagine if you are stuck in an asylum camp for years, it is easy to lose touch with society.”

Want to Get Involved?

We are now at the stage where we can partner with organizations and teaming up with students would be wonderful. What amazed me was that even in war – and in Syria it’s a terrible war – people all have smart phones. I sometimes Skype daily with these people to make them feel the world has not forgotten them. So yes, students can approach me if they want to have contact with someone in Syria, Afghanistan or any other country of war.”

More information about Faces of Change can be found here.

WUP 5/9/2015

by Anesca Smith

©Wittenborg University Press