Lampedusa, the face of the frontier

Lifebuoy LampedusaMore than 100,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta by sea in the first half of 2014. A huge increase from the 60,000 who arrived irregularly by sea in 2013. The numbers of those who embark on this perilous journey but do not make it to Europe alive are increasing just as steadily. According to figures from UNHCR and IOM, more than 3,000 people have drowned or been reported lost at sea this year while trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe, and over 22,000 people have died in the same way since 2000. These figures do not include the many deaths of migrants in transit along various dangerous land routes before they reach the boats. (For more statistics see these reports from Amnesty International and IOM. )

SabirFrom 1-5 October 2014, the island of Lampedusa was again at the centre of the debate. The island has traditionally played an important role as a bridge between the two sides of the Mediterranean. This role was reinforced as the island hosted the Sabir festival of Mediterranean cultures, one year after 368 migrants drowned as their boat sank less than 1km from the coast of the island.
The aim of the festival was to create an open and collaborative space for the countries of the Mediterranean to address issues of migration, identity, a new idea of Mediterranean citizenship, and essentially a new concept of Mediterranean equality. Civil society organisations from Europe and neighbouring countries such as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco, international NGOs, migrants, activists, residents of Lampedusa, and politicians and Members of the European Parliament came together for the conference at the airport of Lampedusa.

Besides the international meetings, there were a number of activities organised in memory of the victims of the 3 October tragedy. The mayor of Lampedusa and many of the people involved in the rescue and recovery operation of 3 October 2013 were present at the airport to meet the survivors and relatives of those who drowned, when they arrived on the island from Rome where they had a private audience with Pope Francis.

Breakwater blocks painted by survivors of the 3 October tragedy, Lampedusa

Breakwater blocks painted by survivors of the 3 October tragedy, Lampedusa (Photo: Bauke Weersma)

On the morning of 3 October, survivors were joined by pupils of Lampedusa high school to paint the concrete breakwater blocks at Favorola quay, and a flash mob was organised to commemorate the victims of the shipwreck.
A fleet including the patrol boats of the Port Authority, the coast guard, Guardia Finanza and the boats of the fishermen who helped the survivors, sailed out to the site of the shipwreck to place a wreath on the water. Divers from the Port Authority placed a concrete plaque on the wreck on the seabed, with the impression of the hands of the survivors and the rescuers.

In the evening, the citizens of the island, the survivors and their family members, and the volunteers and rescuers took part in a procession to the Porta d’Europa (Gate of Europe) a monument dedicated to the memory of all migrants who have lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea. Throughout the activities there was much sadness and anger. As the survivors relived the events of a year ago and the relatives grieved for those lost at sea, the residents of the island grieved with them.

Garden of remembrance for the migrants who drowned on 3 October 2013, Lampedusa

Garden of remembrance for the migrants who drowned on 3 October 2013, Lampedusa

The island’s close proximity to North Africa (113km to Tunisia) has meant that boats packed with migrants and refugees have been arriving at the island for years already. Both these arrivals and the loss of lives on the way affect both the lives and livelihoods of everyone on the island. Fishermen going about their work have become accidental heroes, rescuing migrants stranded or drowning at sea. Lampedusa’s tourism industry has been damaged by the tragedies in the waters surrounding the island, and by scandals surrounding the conditions and treatment of arrivals in the migrant reception centre on the island.

The Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) search and rescue operation set up by Italy has rescued more than 100,000 migrants and refugees since it’s inception in December 2013. The Italian government has repeatedly asked the EU to take responsibility for the operation those calls have been largely ignored as other EU member states are reluctant to get involved or chip in financially when the migrants are not yet at their own doorsteps. The operation is currently being phased out and will soon end altogether. A joint border security operation of EU member states, Frontex Plus (Triton), started last week. The Frontex Plus operation is not a replacement for Mare Nostrum. The scope and geographical extension of Frontex Plus is very limited compared to Mare Nostrum as the mandate of Frontex is border control – not search and rescue. A distinction which should not be underestimated.

Although there has been much media attention given to the numbers of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean since the 3 October tragedy, the longer-term trends behind the numbers are much more complex, and worrying, than the fleeting headlines convey.

Conflict and violence are causing huge numbers of people to flee their homes and homelands in search of safety and protection. Poor governance and economic prospects in countries of origin are leading large numbers of people to migrate in search of opportunities and better lives. Ageing populations in Europe are creating a demand for young, fit workers while overpopulation in other regions is pushing people abroad to look for opportunities. Lack of legal routes to Europe is sending people from all of these groups into the hands of smugglers and directing them towards the boats.

The challenges arising from this migration towards Europe are also complex and diverse, Anti-migrant populism and migration myths abound. The protection of the human rights of migrants is pitted against the protection of the economic rights of European citizens. Questions of responsibility around reception and ‘burden-sharing’ make us question our own identity as European member states and as a unified Europe. Questions around search and rescue make us question our humanity.

When Pope Francis visited Lampedusa in 2013 he called for a “reawakening of conscience” and an end to the “globalisation of indifference”. Reducing migrant deaths in the Mediterranean Sea is not only a matter of conscience but of facing reality.
The number of displaced people in the world may be at a historic high, but migration is not a temporary phenomena. People will continue to move around the globe in search of a safe and dignified existence.

In addressing the root causes of migration we also need to look further than migration itself. Our current economic model is increasing global inequality. As corporations are allowed to plunder the resources of developing countries, their populations are driven further into poverty under the guise of “free trade” and “partnership agreements”. Allowing the economic interests of an elite few (on both sides of the equation) to dominate only serves to create a situation where gaps in equality are widened and the poor are forced to fight against the poor. This in turn only increases migration to Europe and the global north. The environmental costs of this current model are also devastating and are being felt across the globe, but most acutely by those on the wrong end of the global north-south divide of wealth and poverty. The African Union and the EU have a responsibility to work together with countries of origin and transit to enforce human rights, and promote democracy and inclusive development, making migration a choice rather than a necessity.

Border control alone cannot stem irregular migration, just as stopping search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean will not take away the hope of each potential boat migrant that their boat will be one of the ones to make it to Europe. Only by creating safe and legal channels for migration can we reduce demand for the “services” of smugglers and traffickers and keep potential migrants out of the hands of criminals. Legal channels of migration would allow potential migrants to respond to the needs of the EU labour market, to stamp out unscrupulous recruitment and employment practices and to ensure the protection of workers rights. This regulated ‘openness’ would enable migrants to come into their own as transnational actors of economic and social development, contributing to both their countries of origin and destination. Establishing humanitarian corridors would allow asylum seekers to safely reach countries where they can seek protection.

Perhaps it is time for a change of perspective in the EU whereby we start to see Lampedusa as the centre of the Mediterranean rather than the frontier of Europe. As a place that has served as a meeting point for a myriad of cultures throughout the years, and a bridge across the Mediterranean, Lampedusa has a lot to teach us, and if we are serious about preventing more loss of life in the Mediterranean Sea we need to listen carefully.
In a Europe built on the values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, shouldn’t we be throwing lifebuoys instead of wreaths to those who come in search of the same thing?

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The nature of a society is exposed at its margins

Human rights and refused asylum seekers in the Netherlands.

Since 2012, a group of people from a number of countries have formed a group in Amsterdam called “We Are Here”. There are men and women, old and young. Some have been here for many years. Others are relative newcomers. What do they have in common? They all came to the Netherlands in search of protection. Another common factor is that they have all since been denied residence. Their asylum claims refused, or their temporary refugee status taken away. They have been ordered to leave the country but have refused to do so, either because they fear for their lives if returned to their countries of origin, or because they don’t have the paperwork necessary to return.

In the Netherlands, refused asylum seekers who do not cooperate with their deportation do not receive provisions, such as food or shelter, from the state. Since 2010, municipalities are banned from offering them emergency shelter.[1] This means that these people end up on the street, and are dependent on churches and charities for help.[2] They live in the shadows, struggling to survive.

In September 2012, a number of people in this situation came together in Amsterdam and decided it was time for change. They wanted to be visible and to make their situation known. They stepped out of the shadows and declared “We Are Here”, and ‘we need solutions’. The group gained national attention when they set up a tent camp in Osdorp, where they lived for over two months. When the tent camp was evicted, some members of the group were put in immigration detention and the rest were turned back out onto the streets.

Their next ‘home’ was the Vluchtkerk (refugee church) a squatted empty church that was turned into a cold, but at least dry, shelter where the group spent the winter. They stayed here for six months before being evicted again. Since then, the group has moved 8 more times, as buildings are squatted and then after varying amounts of time, evicted.

At one point the authorities in Amsterdam offered the group six months shelter in a former prison known as Vluchthaven (Refugee Haven). Many of them took up the offer, but others were refused as they were not on the original lists of those that had handed their cases over to the Dutch Council for Refugees. Other members of the group refused the offer themselves due to traumas with prisons arising from earlier spells in immigration detention or persecution in their own countries. Temporary shelter was found for a number of women and sick people. The others were literally back on the street again.

Throughout all this, the group has done everything they can to draw attention to their plight. They have held many demonstrations, engaged with local and national politicians, and held campaigns through social media. They have built a large group of supporters from all walks of life, who have helped them to survive.

The group is currently split over a number of locations including a garage (Vluchtgarage) and a squatted building (Vluchtgebouw). The conditions in these buildings are abhorrent. More than 100 asylum seekers are cramped into small spaces and there is often no running water, sanitation, electricity or heating. They are dependent on supporters to bring them food and clothing, and often to give them a place to shower or wash their clothes.

Asylum seekers in the Refugee Garage (Vluchtgarage) –  In English from 01.40

The conditions have been taking their toll on the asylum seekers in both locations, both physically and mentally. There is often not enough food for everyone and the stress of the conditions combined with constant uncertainty about the future, fears of detention or deportation, and traumas from the past have a heavy psychological impact. Many of the group have fled from violence and conflict situations, and suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Organisations such as Amnesty International, Kerk in Actie (Church in Action), and the Dutch Council for Human Rights have spoken out numerous times about the unsafe conditions and volatile situation in which the group exists.
On 18 June 2014 the Dutch Council for Human Rights (College voor de Rechten van de Mens) visited the Refugee Garage and reported the following:

“More than 100 men aged between 18 and 65 years currently live in the ‘vluchtgarage’. They come from (amongst other places) Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia. The property has toilets, but no showers or hot water. It is difficult for them to wash themselves and their clothes. Also, the power supply is not working properly. The men are dependent on donations for food, clothing and beds. Twice a week volunteers bring food, but this is not enough. The result is that disputes arise about food. The men have no privacy, and sleep and live close together in small rooms. Due to a shortage of space, the inhabitants now spread out into the garages and parking deck. The living conditions lead to tensions. The ‘vluchtgarage’ offers them although a roof over their heads, but it is not a safe place. Some men also indicated that they had requested medical care in the hospital but had been turned away because they have no insurance.”[3]

The Council initiated talks with the city government and the Ministry of Security and Justice amongst others, and issued the following warning:

“The situation in the Amsterdam ‘vluchtgarage’ is getting out of hand. Therefore the Dutch Council for Human Rights calls on both the city of Amsterdam and the State Secretary for Security and Justice to take direct measures to remedy the extreme hardship. Prevent that things go so far that people actually die.”[4]

Nothing was done.
Last week, the fears of the Council came true.

Somali asylum seeker Nasir Guled died in hospital after ending up in a coma following a fight with several others at the garage. He had been in the Netherlands since 2008, after fleeing Somalia because he feared for his life after his brother was a victim of violence.[5] With tensions running so high in the garage this was not the first fight to have broken out. It was however the first to leave a man dead, another two in police custody, and the rest of the group with another trauma to deal with.

Nasir Guled

Another man, Ibrahim Toure, also ended up in hospital last week after falling through a banister in the stairwell of the other building where the “We Are Here” group is living. He is still in intensive care with extremely serious head and back injuries.

The huge numbers of asylum seekers dying at the borders of Europe has been making headlines recently. Much less attention is given to those living in the margins of our own society.
Human rights, it seems, are not guaranteed for all, even in the Netherlands. The “We Are Here” group has done a lot to make visible the plight of refused asylum seekers. There are however many more people in the same position as this group currently in the Netherlands. The conditions in which these people are living, or existing, are no less shocking.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

This is elaborated further in the following legislation:
– International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
– The European Social Charter (ESC)
– International Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)
– European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)
– International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)[6]

In January 2013 the Conference of European Churches (CEC) lodged a complaint against the Netherlands with the European Committee of Social Rights regarding the lack of basic provisions afforded to refused asylum seekers. (Conference of European Churches (CEC) v. the Netherlands (Complaint No. 90/2013).[7]

In a preliminary ruling in October 2013, the European Committee of Social Rights issued a ‘decision on immediate measures’[8], stating that undocumented migrants “evidently find themselves at risk of serious irreparable harm to their lives and their integrity when being excluded from access to shelter, food and clothing.”

The ECSR implored the Dutch government to:

“Adopt all possible measures with a view to avoiding serious, irreparable injury to the integrity of persons at immediate risk of destitution, through the implementation of a coordinated approach at national and municipal levels with a view to ensuring that their basic needs (shelter, clothes and food) are met.”[9]

As of yet, no action has been taken by the Dutch government. In July 2014 the ECSR issued their final ruling in the case. In line with the ECSR rules of usual procedure, this statement was first sent to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and confidentially made ​​known to the parties involved. It is only after a resolution by the Committee of Ministers, or after a maximum time span of four months, that a decision will be published. Until now, the State Secretary for Security and Justice, Mr. Fred Teeven, has made it clear that he is not yet going to take any steps to comply with the recommendations of the ECSR.

Since the death of Nasir Guled, organisations including Kerk in Actie, Amnesty International and The Dutch Council for Human Rights have again called upon the Dutch government to take immediate action and offer basic provisions to refused asylum seekers at risk of destitution. The Mayor of Amsterdam, Mr. Eberhard van der Laan, has again said that his hands are tied, maintaining that as long as national policy forbids municipalities from offering provisions to refused asylum seekers, he can do nothing. Again, the State Secretary, Mr. Teeven has refused to take immediate measures, proclaiming that to offer provisions to those who do not have the right papers to be on Dutch soil, would be to declare the asylum system “bust”.

The decision of the ECSR was not the only time that the Netherlands has received such a signal from the international community. In May 2014 a German court refused to send a Somali asylum seeker back to the Netherlands. Although the man had previously applied for asylum in the Netherlands and had been refused, the German court refused to apply the Dublin Regulation, which asserts that an asylum claim must be dealt with in the first EU country in which an asylum seeker sets foot. The court stated that the man, if returned to the Netherlands, ran a considerable risk of being subjected to ‘inhumane treatment’.[10]

The German court affirmed that ‘Human values cannot be qualified by asylum policy,’[11]

Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination.[12] The Netherlands is a party to many international human rights agreements, is currently ranked 4th in the world in the Human Development Index (HDI)[13] and often holds a very high position in Human Rights rank indicators. As such, the country plays an exemplary role in the area of human rights.

Ignoring the advice of the European Committee of Social Rights, the Dutch Council for Human Rights and organisations such as Amnesty International, while maintaining that to give refused asylum seekers enjoyment of their human rights through access to basic provisions necessary for their very survival is not an option because it does not fit with the country’s current migration policy, is simply not good enough.

The reality remains that although the authorities would prefer that asylum seekers left the country as soon as their claims are refused, for a number of reasons there are still large groups of these people living here in dire situations. It would be naïve to assume that policy in this difficult area of migration could ever cover all eventualities. Exceptional cases and situations that do not fit within the tidy edges of the policy will continue to occur. Third countries will refuse to cooperate in the provision of travel documents, conflict will cause large numbers of people to flee and will leave large numbers stranded, mistakes will be made in asylum procedures and refused asylum seekers will do their best to avoid deportation back to situations where they fear for their lives. It is necessary to work on resolving all of these individual issues simultaneously. It is unacceptable to let people suffer in inhumane conditions and die on our streets why doing so.

It is therefore imperative that the human rights of all people who are on Dutch territory are protected, and that basic provisions such as food, shelter, clothing and medical assistance are available to all people, irrespective of their immigration status or in the case of refused asylum seekers – their willingness to cooperate with their deportation.

While considering the situations of the huge numbers of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people around the world today, we should not close our eyes to the plight of those in dire situations on our own doorstep.

They say the nature of a society is exposed at its margins. What does that say about us?

Yoonis Osman Nuur from the “We Are Here” group tells his story at TEDxAUCollege.


[1] There are some instances where municipalities cooperate in offering emergency shelter to small numbers of refused asylum seekers. For example Stichting Noodopvang Dakloze Vreemdelingen Utrecht (SNDVU) which provides temporary shelter and (legal) support to asylum seekers who are not entitled to support from the Dutch government e.g. For example if they are in a regular legal procedure to obtain residence, are involved in the “Perspectief” programme, are working towards organizing their return to their country of origin but do not yet have the necessary paperwork, or they have an acute (medical) condition which means that they would not be able to survive on the streets. For more information see:
The municipality of the Hague is currently also offering temporary shelter to a group of refused asylum seekers (mainly from Iraq and Afghanistan) (in Dutch)
[2] For example, since December 2013 a group of churches in Utrecht has provided a night shelter for undocumented men in the city. (in Dutch)
[3] (in Dutch)
[4] (in Dutch)
[5] Letters sent in July 2014 from Nasir Guled’s legal representative to the State Secretary of Justice and Security and to the Mayor of Amsterdam asking for help: (in Dutch)
[6] (in Dutch)
[7] Here you can read all the documents related to the complaint including the initial complaint, subsequent reactions from both the Dutch government and the Conference of European Churches, and the preliminary ruling from the European Committee of Social Rights:
[9] Conference of European Churches (CEC) v. the Netherlands, Complaint No. 90/2013
[10] Duits vonnis: asielzoeker loopt risico in Nederland (in Dutch)
[11] Court ruling – full text (Verwaltungsgericht Darmstadt – Beschluss)

For more information about “We Are Here” see:

Volunteering – Selfless of selfish?

Dreaming in exile was created to allow me the space to explore some things that are important to me: culture, diversity, and how and why people move around the globe. I am however acutely aware that for millions of people around the world exile is not self-imposed and is far from a dream.

Each day lots of people around the world are forced to flee their homes and their homelands, leaving behind everyone and everything they have ever known, in a mighty effort to stay alive.

I have recently started to volunteer with SNDVU, an organisation which provides temporary shelter and (legal) support to homeless asylum seekers. I’m learning a lot from this experience. About people, migration, human rights, politics, economics… the list goes on. I’m also learning loads about myself. Not just through the work itself, but also simply the act of volunteering has led me into a lot of self-reflection. So why do I volunteer?

At first the answer seemed obvious to me.
1. Because I believe in the work that the organisation does
2. To try to change the things I can, for the better
3. To learn and grow

The more I thought about it however, the more I realised how complex the answer to that simple question actually is.  Are these my real motivations or is there more to it?

Well you can even see from my initial list of reasons that my motivations for volunteering are mainly, but not purely, altruistic. This sounds about right, as I really do want to help others, right wrongs, and make the world a better place, but I’m certainly no saint!

The first two points on my list are strongly connected to my personal values. The work of the organisation embodies some of my own values like compassion, kindness, fairness, freedom, diversity and respect. Working with this organisation enables me to work with these values in a tangible way and promote some of the things I would like to see more of in the world.

So my personal values are obviously strongly connected to my reasons for volunteering, but if I’m really honest with myself I don’t know if, by themselves, they are strong enough motivators to actually get me away from this computer screen and into action.

I listed “learning” as my third reason for volunteering. I have a real respect- and longing for learning. I learn different lessons from each new experience and each person I meet. This means that I’m also constantly readjusting my world-view. Sometimes it’s just a tweak, and sometimes it’s as if the ground has been swept from underneath all my beliefs. Either way, I find this a fascinating process, and not one that I would swap for a set-in-stone existence any day. (That’s the existential migrant in me I guess!) Over the course of my life so far I’ve learned that how I like to learn best is by being confronted by difference. It’s not always comfortable but it’s definitely effective!

So, considering my kind of personal quest for learning, I guess this is where the payoff from volunteering really comes in for me. The new experiences I encounter and the people I meet lend me the opportunity to learn. The link with the other two reasons for volunteering is also quite clear to me. I see working with people with life experiences so different from my own as a real privilege. The organisation and the volunteer work I have chosen expose me to difference and so to opportunities for learning. By learning I hope to change myself for the better and to grow as a person.

This is also why I specifically wanted to be involved with people in my volunteer work. I have volunteered with other organisations in different roles before but I felt that this time I really wanted to be in direct contact with the people the organisation is trying to help.

This realisation also opened the door for my (often overactive) inner critic. Was I not doing it for the wrong reasons? Do I just need to feel needed? Am I trying to make up for times when I couldn’t help those I cared about? Am I just looking for recognition? Am I doing it to help my career? A stream of difficult questions bubbled up in my mind and it took a lot of soul-searching to find the answers! While doing so I realised what a worthwhile process it was.

I think volunteer work is always a two-way street. There is always something in it for the volunteer no matter how altruistic their motivations. That’s just how we work as humans and that’s ok. Moreover, the mutual benefit of volunteering is actually very important. Getting something out of it increases the likelihood of people volunteering and sticking with it. What I do think is necessary however is some honest self reflection to make sure that the benefits for the volunteer are also making them a better volunteer. This is especially important when a volunteer is working directly with the people an organisation is trying to help. I think that organisations working with volunteers can really help their volunteers in this area and do some quality control at the same time by doing evaluations and facilitating self-reflection. This way both the selfless and the selfish motivations of the volunteer can be put to work to reach the best results for all involved. Old news to social scientists and to those managing volunteer communities, but a useful insight to me none the less.

I look forward to learning more through my volunteer work. I wonder where this learning will lead me in the future and I trust I won’t be the only one to benefit from it!

Weekend in Wembley

The last time I was in London was about 8 years ago, so when I got the chance to take a trip across the pond last week, I jumped at it!

On Friday morning I met my colleague at Schiphol airport to catch our flight to London, Heathrow. We were on our way to the Student World Fair to meet students interested in studying in the Netherlands. We boarded our flight and in no time we were on the London Underground on the way to the hotel.

The fair was great on Saturday. It was held in the Bobby Moore suite at Wembley stadium. It was really inspiring to see not only how many school-leavers are interested in studying abroad, but also how so many students and parents alike see the benefits of an international education and experience abroad. I also really enjoyed being able to share my own experiences of studying in the Netherlands with the visitors.

Early morning at Wembley Stadium.

That evening we went for a stroll around the area and then hopped on the tube towards the city centre. Neither of us had done any research, or really had any idea where we were going, so we just decided to come up for air at Shepherds Bush. From there we wandered through Notting Hill and back and eventually parked ourselves in what turned out to be a great Lebanese restaurant.

The next day I just had time to visit the Wembley Market before heading back to the airport. I wasn’t aware at the time that the Wembley market is the largest Sunday market in the UK. The stadium car park was packed with rows of stalls mainly selling clothes, bags, hardware, phone accessories, CDs and, to be honest, the same stuff you can find at almost any market in Europe (and beyond). The mix of people there however was surely unique to London. The diversity was amazing! The central food area was the best place to soak up the multiethnic atmosphere.

Wembley Market – (I was so distracted by all the amazing food at the market that I didn’t take any pictures of it!)

The sights and smells of food from all sorts of culinary cultures being barbequed, baked, boiled, fried, and roasted was truly a feast for all the senses. Sizzling Jerk chicken, Jamaican patties and corn on the cob, trays of golden samosas and pakoras, Vietnamese spring rolls, fish and chips, biryani by the bucket, Thai curries and noodles, halal kebabs, pork pies, hamburgers, fresh rolls, crepes, fruit smoothies…. the food on offer was as diverse as the public enjoying it.

An excellent end to my whistle-stop weekend in London, and definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in Wembley on a Sunday morning!

The Student World – information for students considering studying abroad
Wembley Market – for a great Sunday lunch in London

Refugees, who needs them?

On 26 September, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (Hogeschool van Amsterdam, HvA) signed a cooperation agreement with the (Dutch) Foundation for Refugee Students (UAF). A packed programme was organised to celebrate the occasion: a tasty buffet dinner, African music, a debate with refugee students, and of course the all-important signing of the agreement by Jet Bussemaker (Rector HvA) and Ruud Lubbers (Chairman of UAF and former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees).

Ruud Lubbers (UAF) and Jet Bussemaker (HvA) signing the cooperation agreement.

Refugee students face significant challenges when embarking on a study programme. The language, a foreign diploma and the way education is organised in the Netherlands all take time and effort to get used to, not forgetting of course the issues which many of these students are dealing with in their private lives. The UAF supports more than 3,200 refugee students in the Netherlands, both during their studies and in finding suitable employment after graduation. Around 75 refugee students study at the HvA each year – the largest amount at any higher education institution in the Netherlands.

The main objective of the cooperation between the two organisations is to give these students the support they need to succeed in their studies. The HvA has already begun a number of initiatives to make this happen, including Dutch language lessons, peer coaching and study/career guidance. Another part of the programme includes film, theatre and debate to increase awareness and understanding of the issues faced by many refugee students, within the population of the university and the city, and by doing so to help eventually strengthen their position in society. After all, living in a city like Amsterdam requires learning to deal with differences, respecting each other and working together; for locals and immigrants alike.

The evening ended with the film ‘Refugees, who needs them?’ which gives an insight into the world of five refugees who for various reasons were forced to leave their homes and have been invited to the Netherlands to try build a new life. Film director, Mike Ronson, was also present to tell some stories about making the film and about the people he met along the way.

The programme was great and I learned a lot about some of the difficulties faced by refugees in the Netherlands and around the world, but what really struck me was the positive atmosphere of openness and respect throughout the evening. The best thing was being surrounded by others who believe in the potential of people, recognise the potential in diversity, and then put their time and effort into making it work.

UAF – Foundation for Refugee Students
HvA – Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences

Reading list

Here’s a peek into what I’ve been reading this week.

1. First a paper about two cities that really intrigue me.

A Tale of Two Cities: Hong Kong and Dubai
Celebration of Disappearance and the Pretension of Becoming.
by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein

Ackbar Abbas describes Hong Kong’s “cultural self-invention” as a device linked to a complex concept of “disappearance” which he further defines as a sustained “aesthetics of disappearance” creating a particular cultural space of a “floating identity.” The floating state of Hong Kong’s existence makes it a true forerunner of Dubai, which seems to be suspended in a similar state of floating existence, though at the opposite end of the spectrum. In Dubai “Becoming” seems to have been eternalised.
While Hong Kong revels in what is (almost) no longer there, Dubai revels in what is not yet there. While Hong Kong engenders the feeling of a déjà disparu rooted in an irretrievable, colonial ex-past, Dubai installs itself in a perpetual not yet there that speaks to us through the veil of an indiscernible ex-future. “Dubai as an event” has from the beginning been staged as a spectacular and eternally postponed “not yet there.” While in Hong Kong, property speculation causes the absurd state of affairs that sooner or later any building, no matter how new or monumental it is, will vanish from the map, in Dubai maps have been written in the future tense from the beginning. Read More

2. It’s only natural that cross cultural relationships spring from the cultural mélange that it the UAE. Isn’t it? Here’s an interesting article sharing the experiences of a number of star-crossed lovers.

Can cross-cultural relationships work?
by Louisa Wilkins, Features Editor, Aquarius magazine, Gulf News

Pocahontas and John Smith, Anna and the King… there’s a certain romance to stories of love overcoming the divides of different backgrounds. But in reality, do these differences make relationships tick, or make them sick? Louisa Wilkins speaks to those who know.
Read More

3. Some interesting thoughts on how international administrative staff with a combination of local knowledge and international experience can provide international students with the extra support they need, but unfortunately often do not find, while studying abroad.

Improving the student experience:
The importance of international administrative staff
by Jessica Guiver

Academic mobility is showing no signs of slowing down. More universities worldwide are hiring academics from overseas than ever before. And with good reason: student mobility is also on the rise.

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4. Had enough reading? I highly recommend this film!

Le Havre

Marcel Marx, a former bohemian and struggling author, has given up his literary ambitions and relocated to the port city Le Havre. He leads a simple life based around his wife Arletty, his favourite bar and his not too profitable profession as a shoeshiner. As Arletty suddenly becomes seriously ill, Marcel’s path crosses with an underage illegal immigrant from Africa. Marcel and friendly neighbors and other townspeople help to hide him from the police, and they arrange and pay for an illegal trip by boat to immigrate into England.

What is it about train travel?

I recently spent a long weekend in Antwerp for a friend’s birthday. I took the train from Utrecht to Rotterdam, and on to Antwerp. I really love how train travel always gives me the feeling of going on an adventure. I think this is also because it allows me to enjoy the journey. Of course I’m usually looking forward to exploring the destination, but there’s also something really special about the experience of getting there.

A friend from a large town in Sierra Leone once told me that a lot of people in her town don’t like to travel by plane because it seems unnatural to them to step in in one place and step out somewhere completely different just a short time later. They say that a person’s soul needs time to catch up with their body, and believe that this can take days if you travel far enough.

Although I am very glad to make use of air travel, I can see where they’re coming from. We’re often so focused on our goals, or on an end result, that we forget that each of the steps along the way are equally-, or sometimes even more -important. Travelling by train gives me that time I need to reflect and to just ‘be’. Not be anything in particular, just ‘be’. Of course technology makes it possible to be anywhere but present, but being confined to a seat or a carraige in a moving train still somehow makes it easier to accept just sitting still.

You can learn a lot about people when you’re sitting in a train. If you look carefully, you can see how people change throughout the journey. From the hustle and bustle of entering the train, finding a seat and stowing the luggage to relaxing into the journey and the anticipation of nearing the destination. The changing landscapes rushing by the windows can in a way reflect the inner journey of the passengers.

Travelling by train gives me a feeling of freedom. I’m not expected to do anything except be present. I can neither speed up, nor slow down the journey. Just ‘be’. My first taste of freedom and independence as a teenager was taking the train, first with friends then my myself, to Wexford, and later to Dublin. These might not seem like huge journeys now, but to me they were highly significant. I kept all my tickets and stuck them up on my bedroom wall. Just looking at them gave me a sense of freedom and a longing for more.

Since then I’ve had some amazing experiences on trains in many countries. Just before my 21st birthday I set off across Europe with an Interrail ticket, a guidebook, and a longing for adventure. I found it on my travels, and I also found the city of Utrecht where I still live today.

On a train from Munich to Venice I once shared a cabin with an American couple – an artist and a priest. After silently observing each other for a while – pretending to be minding our own business of course – we started talking about the book I was reading at the time (Paulo Coelho – the Alchemist). What followed turned out to be a very meaningful conversation for me. They were curious about why a young Irish girl was travelling around by herself and about what it meant to me. They in turn told me some fascinating stories about their lives and gave me some good advice that I still remember clearly today, as well as their parting words to me which were: “You’re on the right path. Don’t slow down. God bless you”.

I also fondly remember crossing Greece by train, from Patras to Athens. Dizzy with tiredness and covered in soot from trying to sleep outside on the deck of a ferry from Italy, when the train conductor came by and asked me where I had gotten on the train I answered Brindisi (Italy). He found this highly amusing and translated our conversation into Greek so the rest of the passengers could enjoy it. To learn to laugh at yourself is an important lesson!

On the train to Tomatina (the crazy tomato-throwing festival in the village of Buñol, Spain), I came across one of the most creative pickpockets I have had the ‘misfortune’ of encountering. When more people that I would have thought possible were packed like sardines into the standing-only carraige, the train rattled out of Valencia station. After a while, a man took out a razor and began to dry-shave his face in the middle of the crowd. Most people seemed amused by this and almost everyone was trying to watch him ‘inconspicously’. What we didn’t realise until we left the train, and were stood on the platform with a number of other passengers who were all realising that they were missing money, cameras or mobile phones, was that the tiny lady who had been trying to move around the carraige ‘to get air’ had been his accomplice and had managed to part many passengers from their belongings while they were being entertained by her bearded friend.

I feel very lucky to have so many stories and memories from my various trips by train. I haven’t even started about the night-trains in Vietnam peeping out under the curtain from my bunk and waking up each time in a completely different landscape, or meeting a guy on a train in Italy who told me he was a football player with Vicenza football club but I didn’t believe him until a few weeks later when he sent me a letter and team photo with him in it, or the train ride with a full bladder and no toilets that felt like the longest train journey in history! Even my 1.5 daily hour commute by train, although by now routine, is still never the same twice as I am sharing the journey with different people each day.

In some ways not much has changed since my tentative teenage travels; My wallet is still stuffed with scrappy momentos of my travels including boarding cards and train tickets, and I hope to keep it like that. To keep moving and while doing so, learning to be still, and enjoy the journey.

By the way,  Antwerp was excellent!
We ended up doing nothing we had planned, but instead did so much more. I caught up with an old friend and made some new ones. We enjoyed the Belgian beers, but also got a taste of Thailand and Italy, and even learned a few words of Swahili! I had lots of fun, and was reminded again of how travel opens your mind, and how great people open your heart.