The only Dutch person I know

Students are helping refugees to integrate

‘We talk about all kinds of things. But not about the war; it’s a sensitive subject.’ Photo Taco van der Eb

Refugees are integrating into Leiden with the aid of Dutch rap music, language lessons and mentors. Mare hung out with three mentor-students. “It’s so Dutch: Appointments, appointments, appointments, everything must be on time.”

Appointments, appointments, appointments

“Voorzichtig! Pas op!” are the Dutch words Lojain Matar (23) from Syria picks up on a visit to De Valk Windmill Museum.

The stairs in the old mill get steeper as they climb; the floor creaks, but Matar doesn’t mind. “Are the heights bothering you?” asks Josephine Sisouw de Zilwa (20, Cultural Anthropology), when they arrive at the balcony, some fourteen metres off the ground. Matar doesn’t understand the question immediately, but even when she does, she doesn’t know why Sisouw is frightened.

“Mooi” she exclaims at everything she sees in the mill. Or: “Oud!” And the hutspot and pancakes Sisouw recently cooked for her were: “Lekker!” “Did you really like them?” Sisouw asks. Well, the pancakes tasted delicious, anyway.

Sisouw was appointed Matar’s mentor by the municipality. She is almost the only Dutch person with whom Matar has contact. “And our old neighbour”, adds Matar. The only other people she actually speaks to are Syrians. “I know them from Dutch class.” According to Sisouw, her Dutch is improving very quickly. “At first, we used Google Translate or Google Images much more often. Or we switched to English.” Matar was doing an English degree course in Syria. “Only one year”, she says. She would love to continue her studies here. “And be a teacher, teaching young children.”

A little later, in the apartment she shares with her husband Jamal (25), she offers me biscuits. “They’re from Zam Zam”, she explains, an Islamic supermarket in Leiden. She thinks “one biscuit with your coffee” is so Dutch. And: “Lots of bikes, lots of the same, low houses, lots of dogs and cats about.” In Syria, she lived high up in a large building. “In Homs.”

She’s quiet for a moment. “We usually talk about all sorts of things”, says Sisouw. “But not about the war, actually. It’s a sensitive subject.” Matar arrived in the Netherlands by plane, following Jamal who roamed all over the place by land and sea before arriving here. “That’s so Dutch too”, Lojain continues quickly. “Appointments, appointments, appointments, filling up your diary. Everything must be on time.”

Herrings and hotchpotch

Nashwa Nashed (24), from Syria, has her phone playing “Je booty gaat van round, round, round, round, round”. “I like this song”, she exclaims, talking about the song by Dutch rap artists Dyna, Lil’ Kleine, F1rstman and Bollebof. Nashed has joined law student Anna Stupers (23) at a sidewalk café, where they meet almost every week. “We usually have a coffee”, says Stupers. “We chat about life in Syria but about other things too, things we both like.”

Stupers put her name down to be a mentor for the JA Statushouders project after seeing a Facebook request from Leiden Municipality. “I’ve worked with Amnesty International on the refugee issue before, but I wanted to get to know the people we were helping personally”, she explains.

This spring, she started mentoring Nashed, who has been in the Netherlands for two years. “I took a bus from Aleppo to Turkey. After eight months, we took a boat to Greece,” Nashed tells me.
“You lived there for a while too, didn’t you?” Stupers asks.

“For two years”, Nashed replies. “I arrived in the Netherlands by plane. At first, I lived in an AZC (asylum seekers’ centre) in Dronten, but now I have a flat of my own in Leiden.” Her parents and brother are still in Aleppo. “I talk to them every day.” At least, if the connections are working. “And I often visit my sister who lives in The Hague. Her children were born here.” She shows me some pictures of her nieces. “The eldest is called Máxima”.

Back in Syria, Nashed was doing a degree course in business administration and marketing; now she spends her time learning Dutch. “At the university’s Language Centre.” She also attends cultural lessons. “About herrings and hotchpotch”, she says, pulling a face. Stupers remarks: “As a holder of a residence permit, you don’t get much chance to get to know Dutch people. At language class, she usually meets people from Syria and Eritrea.” “And Iran, Russia and Israel”, Nashed adds. “Anna is the only Dutch person I know, really.”

A good gossip

“Actually, I’m a vegetarian”, Elise van Dansik (21, Anthropology) says. “But Eid is an exception”, says Nebal Darwish (18). “Surely you can eat meat then?”

Van Dansik has joined the entire Darwish family on the couch in their living room in a flat in the Merenwijk district: father, mother, four sons and some friends. “A good gossip with Elise”, says Nebal. “Just joking; she’s just come round for a chat.”

“Sometimes we go for a walk or a coffee at Einstein”, Yamen (20) tells me. Van Dansik adds: “I’ve shown them the Burcht, the windmill and the market too. Only, they wouldn’t try herring.” Father Nabil shakes his head emphatically when he hears the word “herring”. “What’s that again?” Aghyad (15) asks. “Isn’t that awful (vies)?” “No, herring doesn’t taste awful at all”, Van Dansik exclaims. Aghyad replies: “Fish (vis), I mean.”

Nebal and Yamen have been here for two and a half years. “We took a boat from Turkey to Italy together”, recalls Yamen. Nebal continues: “The others arrived a year ago by plane from Turkey.” That’s when they saw their youngest brother Ameer for the first time; he is twenty-one months old now. He laughs when Van Dansik shows him his picture with an animal’s face on Snapchat.

“We sing Dutch songs”, says Safaa. “Nursery rhymes for Ameer”, explains Yamen. “And Dutch rap artist Boef!” Nebal and Aghyad now go to school in Leiden and Yamen wants to start senior secondary school (MBO). “He wants to do something in ICT”, Nebal thinks. “And you want to be a hairdresser”, Aghyad retorts. His quiff, with lines shorn up along the sides, is Nebal’s creation. Aghyad plays all sorts of musical instruments. “I want to be a DJ.” Safaa and Nabil are amazed to hear their sons’ plans for the future. “I was a midwife in Homs”, says Safaa. “And I was a welder”, adds Nabil. “She wants to work as a midwife again”, Nebal explains. “But we must sort things out before she’s allowed to do that here.”

There is a small Christmas tree under the television. Safaa just thinks it’s pretty. On the wall opposite, there is a clock with elegant texts picked out in gold. “There from the Qoran”, explains Safaa. She points to the Christmas tree and the clock: “And we’re in the middle.” “Really we should have something Jewish on the other wall,” says Nebal with a grin.


A statushouder (holder of a residence permit) is a refugee who has been granted a provisional residence permit after applying for asylum. This position gives you certain rights, such as housing, but also duties, such as taking the civic integration examination. So far this year, Leiden has housed 252 new statushouders of the Municipality’s target of 308. To help them integrate, the Municipality launched the JA Statushouders (JAS) project. Now, 124 Leiden residents have been appointed mentors to one or more statushouders. 15 students and 10 members of Leiden University’s staff have already joined the programme, but more mentors are always welcome.

By Marleen van Wesel

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