Syrian Scientist Refugee: Belgian Integration Courses Aren’t About Integration

Syrian refugee scientists holding hands after attending an integration course in their refugee camp

Architect Sara* and software engineer Saïd* married before fleeing Syria for Europe. They have been granted asylum and are living in a small but cozy Belgian apartment. He is enrolled in a Masters in Computer Science, she in an intensive Dutch course. They were so kind to invite us into their home, where they enlightened us about their struggles to find a job.

Warm welcome

Easy-going thirtysomethings Saïd and Sara had agreed to meet us in their Belgian apartment. Having never met them before, we had no idea what to expect. A small lift took us all the way to the top of a high-rise housing block, building up the tension we already felt. This was our first real interview.

They received us with a smile. The couple looked somewhat timid, but mainly happy about the interest in their story. Taking our coats, they warmly invited us into their living room where we were welcomed with fresh fruit. It felt like we had known each other for years.

They fled to Europe one week after the wedding, braving the unpredictable Mediterranean Sea in a rubber boat

Saïd and Sara talked openly about their lives. They had met at the beginning of the Syrian civil war while she was working as an architect and he as a software engineer. When the situation in Damascus became unlivable, they decided to marry. They fled to Europe one week after the wedding, braving the unpredictable Mediterranean Sea in a rubber boat.

Happiness and zest for life

The ice broke when we complimented them on the décor of their home. They were both beaming with pride. Getting an apartment had proven difficult. “We had first signed another lease but the landlord changed her mind and didn’t want to let to refugees after all. She didn’t say it with these words but it boiled down to this. Although we were legally in the right with a signed lease, we wanted to avoid a quarrel. So we let go of the apartment and searched for an alternative,” Sara told us.

They spoke frankly about all the sincere Belgians they have met, as well as the brother of Saïd who had already lived in Belgium for a while. “We have built quite a network here,” Saïd told us gratefully.

“Once we both have jobs, we would maybe like to start a family… who knows”

When we asked about their biggest dream, they were of one mind: “To be employed again in a decent job as soon as possible!” As they had lived a highly successful life in Syria before the war, the impossibility to do so now in Belgium is a harsh reality. “Once we both have jobs, we would maybe like to start a family… who knows,” Saïd adds cautiously.

While their positivity and gratefulness struck us, we asked them to voice constructive criticism regarding their treatment and situation in Belgium.

Job search

‘Syrian Job experience’ seems to be insufficient, even for a bottleneck job like software engineer. The many cover letters he has sent remain unanswered. Saïd is now studying for a Masters in “Computer Science”, taught in English, at a Belgian university, as well as for a Dutch language course. “I don’t know if that is enough,” he says worriedly. “There are 40 other students on my course!”

“I am convinced that I could complete the Masters in English without problems. They should give us a chance”

Although Sara has worked for several years as an architect, she can’t find a job either. A Masters degree in Architecture from a European university seems to be essential. Ten years after graduation, she has to pick up her books again. To her great disappointment, she can’t even get started with that; her five year long Syrian Bachelor degree is not fully recognized. To be equivalent to a Belgian Bachelor degree, she must complete 40 credits (± half a year, ed.) in civil engineering. Unfortunately, these courses are available in Dutch (or French) only.

“Arabic is more like German. Our teachers say you can’t say it the way we do”

“I am convinced that I could complete the Masters (in English) without problems. They should give us a chance,” she sighs. “I first need to get to a C1 level in Dutch from zero – that means speak the language fluently. That’s not easy, certainly not with Arabic as mother tongue. The pronunciation is so hard, especially the letter ‘g’! We pronounce it like ‘ch’: dertich instead of dertig. Arabic is more like German. Our teachers say you can’t say it the way we do.” She smiles. “Only after getting C1 level in Dutch, can I take the required credits to only then finally begin my Masters. This is going to take years. So inefficient and unnecessary!”

Integration courses

Sara pulls out her schedule and points at the subject ‘Nederlandskunde’ that is part of her Dutch intensive course. “Here they teach us what I’ve already learned during the integration course,” she says, disappointedly. “I learn nothing new, but am still not entitled to an exemption.”

“Integration courses are not at all about integration. They build a wall between refugees and society”

“Integration courses,” Saïd adds, grinning, “are not at all about integration. You learn about the history of Belgium and how insurance works. Anyone can find this information online. After a quick Google search, we know everything.” He gets interrupted by his wife: “I think we know more about Belgian history than Belgians!”

Saïd continues: “Indeed. It would be better if there were some sort of internships organised for us. In an integration course, I expect to be thrown into Belgian life, but that’s not the case at all. In fact these ‘integration courses’ build a wall between refugees and society. Two classes of people are being created: you are either a refugee, or a Belgian. I truly believe this could be better. Our neighbours invite us just as Saïd and Sara, not as refugees. That’s what I call integration!”

“Our pocket money, 7.40 EUR a week, went primarily to a bus card”

The couple clearly question the value of integration courses and also feel that the commute to them wasn’t easy. Sara shakes her head: “We had to walk for 30 minutes to the station only to face a long ride afterwards. It took about an hour. We had 3 hours of class, after which we had to return to the camp. Our pocket money, 7.40 EUR a week, went primarily to a bus card.” Despite the daily struggle of going to these classes, they decided to subscribe to two Dutch language courses, which weren’t easily accessible either.

We appreciated their openness. Later on we also talked to them about the living conditions in Belgian refugee camps.

* The couple prefers to be anonymous. Their identity is known by RefuTales.


RECOMMENDATIONS FROM SAÏD AND SARA:

  • Allow Syrian Bachelor Degrees to qualify for Masters.
  • Integration courses should provide solid tools for integration, for example by organizing internships. In the reception camps, there is little contact with Europeans. Why wait until asylum is granted?
  • The way ‘integration courses’ are organized now, a wall is being built between refugees and society. Two classes of people are created: you are either a refugee, or a Belgian. This could be better.
  • If there are courses, they need to be easily accessible from the camps.

 

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