When Mohammed Badran came to VU Amsterdam in 2015 to learn Dutch, he immediately became socially active. He set up the foundation Syrian Volunteers Netherlands, which aims to help Syrian refugees like himself find their footing in Dutch society by doing volunteer work. His work quickly attracted international attention, and the following year he was invited to speak at a United Nations refugee summit in New York.
And that was just the beginning. He has since spoken at conferences in New York and Geneva and joined an international refugee organisation, the Network for Refugee Voices. His message – governments need to put refugees at the centre of their refugee policies if they want to see better results – hasn’t fallen on deaf ears in Dutch politics. He was invited by ministries to join policy discussions and, together with policymakers and heads of state, contributed to a statement of intentions and commitments at the 2019 Global Refugee Forum in Geneva. This document is now used as a basis for policy around the world. Meanwhile, he conducted research on refugee participation together with Halleh Ghorashi, professor of diversity and integration at VU Amsterdam, and also gave a guest lecture on the subject. Last month, Badran was presented with the Echo Award, a prize for successful non-Western students, by education minister Robbert Dijkgraaf.
In short, Badran has been making quite the name for himself, all while pursuing an anthropology degree at VU Amsterdam. You’d think the university would consider him a model student. After all, isn’t VU Amsterdam the university that always insists that education involves much more than just acquiring knowledge and skills – that it’s about applying what you learn to help create a better world?
VU Amsterdam may have published a glowing story about Badran winning the Echo Award on its website, but in practice the university’s support for his extracurricular activities was a bit disappointing, he says. “Teachers often wouldn’t accept it when I missed lectures because I was in Geneva, for instance, and one of them sent me an email saying I apparently wasn’t serious about my studies, and that I was always busy doing other things. Another teacher said that she didn’t believe I would graduate.”
Badran says there’s a double standard. “There’s a big difference between how VU Amsterdam presents itself to the outside world and the way things actually are here. The communications department and the diversity officer have all these nice things to say about diversity and decolonisation, but none of that has anything to do with the reality on campus.”
“And it’s not just about how teachers interact with students like me, but also about VU Amsterdam’s engagement as an institution with socially relevant issues. I wish VU Amsterdam would show the same solidarity with Afghanistan, Venezuela, Syria and Palestine as it does with Ukraine.”
‘I wish VU Amsterdam would show the same solidarity with Afghanistan, Venezuela, Syria and Palestine as it does with Ukraine’
Badran: “Together with other VU students and human rights organisations like Amnesty International, I tried to organise events at VU Amsterdam on Palestine, but they weren’t approved for being too one-sided, supposedly.”
This left him feeling deeply disappointed. “I was born in Syria, in a Palestinian refugee camp. I had already noticed that the situation in Palestine was hardly ever discussed during lectures, even though it’s an ongoing issue that many students feel involved in. Last year, together with forty other VU students, I sent a letter to the Anthropology Department to try to change that. But even when I would wear a Palestinian scarf, for example, I’d get strange comments from other students, and sometimes even from teachers.”
The only refugee
Badran attributes this to the ‘white environment’ at VU Amsterdam. “I was the only refugee in my year, and there was one student of Turkish descent. The majority were white Dutch people, and almost all of the teachers were white as well. As a minority, there’s little room to be yourself in an environment like that, and you’re always seen as someone who doesn’t meet the standard.”
‘In a white environment, you’re always seen as someone who doesn’t meet the standard’
This was also evident when Badran wrote his thesis. “It was about passports as an instrument of inequality. Europeans don’t realise that they can go anywhere with their European passport. They can enter and leave Syria freely, which is impossible for Syrians, who have to pay a lot of money for a fake passport so they can leave an unsafe situation and get to a safe place. My point was that we needed to look at passports using a different frame of reference, but that wasn’t accepted by my supervisor and the second reader. I was forced to write from their white, Western frame of reference, to use their concepts, because otherwise I would be an activist.”
After first receiving a mediocre grade, he managed to get a 7 by rewriting his thesis, but he did not feel supported by his teachers. He did receive recognition for his work when he won the Leonhard-Woltjer Foundation’s Master’s thesis award. “But I had sort of had enough of it all at that point. Of all the hassle at VU Amsterdam, where I was always being pigeonholed and where people would constantly try to hold me back. It had a negative impact on my confidence. So that thesis award did feel like a big win.”
For Badran, the problems with his thesis are indicative of the general attitude towards minorities in the Netherlands. “You’ll never make it if you don’t adapt to the Dutch norm, and in that respect not much has changed in recent years. Integration is still mainly seen as something the migrant has to do. And if anything goes wrong, it’s always the migrant’s fault.”
The Netherlands’ minority policy is primarily a service offered to minorities by the government, according to Badran. And even though minorities are seen as ‘customers’ in this dynamic, they have no agency whatsoever. “The government goes: It doesn’t matter if you like the service. We know what’s good for you, and you should be grateful to us for that”, says Badran. “To me, it seems logical to involve the people the policy pertains to.”
‘If anything goes wrong, it’s always the migrant’s fault’
In government, more and more people are realising how important it is to have a minority policy that’s informed by the perspective of minorities. Badran graduated last year, and as a social designer for the organisation Open Embassy, which is committed to a ‘just system and a responsive society for all newcomers in the Netherlands’, he works with welfare organisations and refugees. As a consultant, he helps governments make policies that are more attuned to the needs of minorities. “That means no more fines if people don’t participate in their integration process, but looking instead at how you can stand side by side with people as you help them find their way to the labour market or education.” For example, he advised the City of Rotterdam on the design of a new local civic integration law.
Badran has also been critical of the Echo Award. “I said something about that prize shortly after I won it, about it being for non-Western students. It’s yet another way to label us as outsiders, as people who don’t conform to the Western norm, but to a non-norm.”
“VU Amsterdam has a special arrangement for students involved in top-level sports. The same flexibility could also be applied to students who are socially active alongside their studies”, says Chief Diversity Officer Ruard Ganzevoort. While he declined to comment on Mohammed Badran’s individual case, he can imagine that lecturers sometimes feel “the pressure of the educational system” and therefore see little room for leniency if a student is unable to attend a lecture because he has been asked to speak at a UN summit on refugees.
“As a university, we need to explore how we can create more space for those kinds of activities”, Ganzevoort says. “Standard rules are necessary for the student body as a whole. But when Einstein comes along, you sometimes have to bend the rules a little.”
Conflicts over methods and perspectives that deviate from the classical Western paradigms are part of the “growing pains” of a university that is in the process of becoming more inclusive, according to Ganzevoort. “The conversation about Western paradigms versus post-colonial paradigms needs to be had, but it’s an especially complicated step in our development. We need to look for the right forms to have that discussion university-wide, for instance through symposia. The University Library could play a helpful role in this process, and keep everyone from retreating into their trenches.”