My friends really helped me a lot. They mean the world to me

How do you like the engineering programme?

Very much. I like the courses, the professors, the students ... But it is also difficult. I'm really not going to lie: I literally don't have time for myself, because I usually have lessons from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. With a daily two hour transport to my apartment, the days are quite full.

And then study in the evening?

Yes, definitely! To be honest, last year it was enough to study in the weekends. But this year is different: I have to study in the evening too to keep up. We have to submit reports every week, and I am currently working on four projects with my fellow students.

How did you make the choice for Engineering?

I studied Dutch at Linguapolis, at the University of Antwerp, and the people there really helped me a lot, also in choosing my study programme. I was able to discuss my areas of interest with them, and they brought me into contact with the study counselor of the study programme. After a conversation with her it was clear that Electronics-ICT would really be my thing. And that was really true: I find it extremely interesting.

You speak Dutch very well. Was it difficult to do in a short time?

Learning Dutch was not the most difficult for me, because I think I learned it in the best place where you can learn Dutch: at Linguapolis. It was so interactive and personal. I had previously followed Dutch at the ‘CVO’ (Centrum voor Volwassenenonderwijs), but that was really not for me. The lessons were very basic and not a good preparation for higher education. My social assistant at OCMW helped me enormously: thanks to him I came in contact with Linguapolis, and I received a scholarship for a Dutch language year. I learned Dutch in 9 months, and also had courses on culture and politics, on phonetics and pronunciation, and academic skills. Those skills are extremely helpful now: how do you make a portfolio, how do you write a paper, how do you make a report ...

I also got a self-study course there, and I learned to study independently. That's enormously important now, because last year I was really in shock (laughs). The education system is so different from Syria! In Syria the main input comes from the professor, but here you have to figure out a lot yourself and with your fellow students. You get an introduction and a framework, but you have to do everything else yourself. That was very difficult until last semester, but now it suits me.

Do you still get support from your study counselor?

Yes, sure! At the start of my second year I wasn’t able to take up the full curriculum of 60 credits. Together with the study counselor I was able to make a number of choices in which courses I should already take, and which in a second phase.

What tips would you give other refugees who want to follow your track?

You have to ask a lot of questions. Nobody is going to tell you everything if you don't go looking for what interests you. Always be curious! For example, your social assistant at the OCMW does not automatically know whether you are interested in Dutch at a higher level. Only when I told my social assistant did he ensure that I could go to Linguapolis. I was really lucky that he could help me with this.

You must also focus on the language. That is something you learn by doing it. Linguapolis for example provides a method, a course, teachers to help you. But if you don't really work hard, you will never learn the language. For example, in my group we had 11 refugees, all of whom spoke Arabic. Still, it was important to speak Dutch among ourselves. You must commit yourself not to speak Arabic or English or whatever. Only Dutch. I watching television and listen to the radio in Dutch. And look for Flemish friends: you will never find a better way to practice your Dutch.

I think the latter is also a very important tip! I couldn't have achieved this without my friends. The university asks a lot of self-study, and I couldn't do that in the beginning. My friends really helped me a lot. They come to my apartment in Lier to have lunch and study together. They mean the world to me. So I want to thank them very much for everything. And to other refugees I say: make friends, because Flemish people are really super friendly and very sweet. If you hear that Flemish people are not open minded: that is not true! In my experience they are really helpful.

Are you planning to stay in Belgium, or would you like to go back to Syria?

I am currently not going to go back. I have lost everything in Syria - my family, my friends, my house, my studies ... I am now building my life again, so I am not going to throw that away. I feel at home here, and I intend to use my diploma and new language, to start a family and hopefully become a Belgian. I really hope that will happen. Who knows what will happen in the future.

This interview was originally recorded in Dutch. Go to our Dutch pages for the full version.