Refugees head back to school at Brussels university


Together with university administrators, a Syrian professor at VUB has set up a programme that puts highly educated refugees on the fast track to a better future

A fresh start

A Syrian academic is encouraging refugees in Belgium to continue their education, through a unique university programme that offers people fleeing war zones the chance of a better future.

Dr Mohammad Salman came to Belgium from Damascus five years ago to study international relations at the Free University of Brussels (VUB). He is now responsible for co-ordinating the Welcome Student Refugees programme, which supports integration of refugees as part of the university's refugee taskforce.

“The VUB has a social responsibility to do something about the refugee crisis,” says the university's refugee taskforce leader Koen Van den Abeele, who has 15 years of management experience in the social sector. “The rector, Paul De Knop, put together a group at the end of last year to examine what action we could take. The idea was not to provide housing, blankets or food. We want to stick to our core business of education, training and research. So we started to analyse the data.”

Van den Abeele talked to the department of foreign affairs, the federal asylum agency and other authorities, gathering statistics from their interviews with asylum-seekers. What he found was that of 35,000 people applying for asylum in Belgium, 23% had been students before they fled their country, with 11% of those at university.

“So straight away, we could see it wasn’t a few hundred but a few thousand people,” he says, “and we wanted to be ready when they got their asylum status.”

These people are highly educated, and all of them want to work, Salman points out. “They have certificates, they have Master’s degrees, but their qualifications are not recognised here.” So VUB is inviting them to apply for a variety of undergraduate and postgraduate courses, in English and Dutch.

Out of the water

The taskforce caught people’s attention when De Knop announced it in his New Year’s address. “We expected a lot of interest, but we didn’t really know what to expect. Maybe 100 applications,” says Salman. “But up to now I’ve received more than 800 emails from refugees who want to study here.”

Of these potential students, more than 500 have the academic capability to start right away, but language is a stumbling block. Most of them have a good level of English, but about half want to study in Dutch to increase their chances of finding a job in Flanders. The university and its adult education wing have provided free language classes for those eligible to start studying. 

These are educated, professional people who want to create a life here and be part of society

- Dr Mohammad Salman

“Language and education are the best ways to integrate into a new culture. So if their language isn’t good enough, we’ll give them a chance,” says Salman. “Some have been studying and are already at level B1 in Dutch having been here six months.” Those offered a place on a course of study can defer it until September 2017 if their language skills are not yet sufficient.

Given that these people have fled war zones, how likely is it that they will have their academic paperwork with them?

“We don’t expect them to have their certificates, but I’ve been surprised to see that most people do,” says Salman. “From 800 applications so far, there are just seven people without a certificate. I asked one of them about it, and he told me: ‘This is my life, my chance at a future. If I fall into the sea it’s not a problem, but I have to keep my certificates out of the water’.” 

Ready for action

The programme aims not just to offer refugees a shot at a better future, but to help the local economy, too. “If they get a qualification from this country, it’s more likely that they’ll find work,” Salman explains. “We offer them a chance to improve their skills, so they can find work and pay taxes. These are educated, professional people who want to create a life here and be part of society.”

They can also fill significant skills gaps in the region. For example, it’s expected that Flanders will need an extra 35,000 engineers in the next 10 to 20 years. In that time, the region’s universities expect to train just 7,000.

“We’ve had applications from architects, engineers, everything,” says Van den Abeele. “There was one man with a long CV and pdfs of buildings he’s designed. It would be terrible to let these people’s skills go to waste.

There are young, intelligent people twiddling their thumbs in refugee reception centres,” he adds. “They are ready to do something, and we are ready to help.”

The goodwill is there, with support from the university’s top administrators, while students plan to set up a buddy system. What’s lacking, according to Salman and Van den Abeele, is co-ordinated support from the regional and federal governments and other bodies.

“I want to see the other universities doing something similar,” says Salman. “They can come to us for guidance. We have the experience and we could create a programme for all the universities in Flanders. I’m not talking about conferences, about theory; I’m talking about practical action. The government has provided money for Dutch lessons, which is a step in the right direction, but we still need more.”

Photo by Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto/Corbis

Free University of Brussels (VUB)

The VUB was established as a spin-off of the French-speaking Université Libre de Bruxelles in the 1960s. It’s an internationally oriented and liberal institution, and the only Dutch-speaking university in the capital.
Work - The VUB is the largest Dutch-speaking employer of the Brussels-Capital Region.
St V - Every year, students honour university founder Pierre Theodore Verhaegen in a festive, booze-filled “St V” march through the city.
Campus - The VUB is the only Dutch-speaking university with a small, American-style green campus.

Master’s programmes offered


million euros in research budget in 2010

12 000

students in 2011-2012 academic year