It has been a while since refugees have been prominent news. Much like any other news, the topic has been put on a backburner, because is anything more important than who Donald Trump has insulted this time?! Evidently not. So in light of this issue’s theme: diversity, I thought it was high time to show a different side of the Out & About section. While we definitely enjoy eating cake on a regular basis, there’s more to Middelburg than cake shops and de Lange Jan. This is why I sit down with Elizabeth Mcpherson, a third year law and politics major, who has worked nineteen months at the AZC (asielzoekerscentrum; asylum center) in Middelburg to ask about her experience.
Much like anyone, Elizabeth did not come here to study what she now majors in. She got put into a law class taught by our former dean Barbara Oomen, who then ignited her passion for law. In an attempt to gain experience in the field, something that is particularly difficult to do in Zeeland if you’re interested in international human rights, Elisabeth took to Google. She explained that if she could do volunteer work, she wanted to do something that she can actually help people with, because of her experience and knowledge in the field of law. This is how she found the vacancy for the position of legal counselor at the AZC.
During her time at the AZC, Elizabeth helped her clients with filling in legal forms like those for family reunion, kept an eye on the asylum process of the newer clients, and made sure they met important deadlines, such as court dates or appointments with their lawyers. Refugees do not come here to steal our jobs: these people come from tough situations that they need to escape. For example, there are women who have been beaten and raped, and were now pregnant with no clue of how their husbands would react. Especially in a culture that shuns women for getting raped, it is a difficult situation to be in. Thankfully it sometimes turns out all right. With some encouragement one woman did talk to her husband, who surprisingly was quite understanding and would still come over for family reunion. Another example Elizabeth sketched was of this man who had never seen his daughter because she was born when he was in the Netherlands waiting for his wife to come over. It was during the time when the IND (Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service) was in a stage where the three-month waiting period for family reunions was prolonged to a wait up to six months. Now it has even moved up to nine months. Eventually his wife and daughter came over and he was obviously very happy. Every Wednesday, he came to visit Elizabeth with his daughter in the office, and they invited her to have dinner at their house as well.
It is incredible to see the diversity of people that live in the AZC. They have such a different perception of what goes and what does not. They do not really realize that in the Netherlands there is a set time to do something, and that is a lot to adjust to. The two largest groups in Middelburg are the Eritreans and the Syrians. Both have different religions, different conventions, and come from different backgrounds. Most Syrians are highly educated and speak some English, whilst most Eritreans do not. This can lead to some frustrating situations, but in the end they are all there for the same reason, which unifies them. As Dutch law prohibits refugees from working until they have completed their integration process (something that can last up to 5 years) refugees get bored. They need to do something, they need to get out, and make some new contacts as well.
So how can UCR students help? While there have been plenty of initiatives from UCR students, something that Elizabeth has noticed is that a lot of people do not fully commit to it. She says that: “The thing that annoyed me is that UCR has all these initiatives for refugees, but then it is always like ‘yeah we do this for a couple of weeks and then when we don’t have time to do it anymore, we just drop it’. I think it is a bit of a shame, because if you’re going to do something like that, you have to commit to it. Don’t just do it for two months and then think like, ‘oh yeah well now I can’t be bothered. I’ve done my part. I can put this on my CV’.” And it is really not difficult to contribute if you want to. Elizabeth recommends to just go over to the AZC (Laurens Stommesweg 1, Middelburg) if you have an idea, ask for permission, and hang up posters with your initiative. If you come with a group you do have to notify them first, even if you just want to have tea with them. It is really important not to forget about the refugees as tends to happen, because of academics and getting caught up in wanting to go to a good school. There’s more to life than getting into Harvard or Cambridge: don’t forget them.
Elizabeth Mcpherson, Class of 2017, is a law and politics major from Urk, The Netherlands.
Yonna Kuipers, Class of 2017, is a history and linguistics major from Schiedam, The Netherlands.