Blog: Reaching in, reaching out–Finding ways to help during the refugee crisis

“Why don’t you get the whole story down on paper?” the Dean asked. I realised it may be easier said than done, but decided to give it a try anyway, because I realised I can look back on a very special experience I’d like to share with others. I take pride in the idea that I’ve managed to make a slight difference. I’m also proud of all the other people who helped make it such a special experience.

I first started to prepare for a new edition of the Fast Forward (FFWD) programme in my role as postgraduate programme coordinator in the autumn of 2015. Fast Forward is a development programme for academic potentials offered by the Maastricht University (UM) School of Business and Economics (SBE). The first edition had almost come to an end, and I’d charged with assessing what went well and which aspects could be improved on in the future: a new group is set to start in February 2016.

Thankfully, the participants from the first edition helped me out. I took stock of their views over coffee and cookies. “We did learn a lot of useful things,” one of the participants explained. “But we would have liked to see a team-building activity.” I replayed that comment in my head over the next few days. Why on earth would I simply add a team-building activity to the programme if there aren’t any clear links to SBE? That’s not how we do things!

However, our team (PGE) is also still discussing various aspects of postgraduate development. Among other issues, we’re exploring our role within the faculty, the university as a whole, and—last but not least—broader society. After all, the university has a clear social responsibility. Which steps can we take, and how are we supposed to provide social accountability? Then it hits me: why don’t we turn the whole event into a social activity?

We developed the broad strokes of the programme, which started with a module on Academic Leadership by trainers Mariëlle Heijltjes and Peter Berends and offer room for the aforementioned social activity. Participants will be expected to literally distance themselves from their day-to-day teaching and research duties, so I seek out a beautiful and inspiring location in Maastricht. I more or less accidentally stumble upon the Teaching Hotel in the district of Limmel.

The leadership module aims to help participants develop an open attitude and increase their personal impact by simply being themselves and refraining from judgement. I decided I wanted to apply this same goal to the social activity. I thought of a few ideas, and my colleagues offer plenty of suggestions. However, I eventually scrapped them all because they didn’t reflect my wish list.

Suddenly, the answer came to me! The Maastricht Refugee Centre is located just around the corner from the Teaching Hotel. The facility represents an unfamiliar world that I’ve only ever learned about through news items on the refugee crisis. I wouldn’t know the first thing about life in a place like that. I asked myself how we could help the inhabitants while contributing to the development of our participating academics. I had a hard time imagining our interactions with the refugees. Do they speak English? How would we cope with our cultural differences? Which subjects are best left unspoken, and which questions should I avoid? At the same time, I can’t help but wonder whether our SBE participants are all that eager to interact with refugees. After all, they never asked for this activity.

Rina van den Brandt and Hortense Kallen, who maintain contacts with the refugee centre on behalf of HRM/SDC and help to connect different initiatives, introduced me to the centre’s case manager, Jolanda Gerbecks, and her colleague Joost Hounjet (. Over the course of an exploratory meeting, we came up with the idea of organising an afternoon speed-dating session. The emphasis, we decide, should be on getting to know each other and seeing what happens. There shouldn’t be any predetermined subjects or activities. We would organise an international lunch, prepared by the inhabitants themselves. The participants can simply sit down at the table and take part. It was all a bit new to me, as I’m used to arranging every last detail in advance. There was also a nagging voice in the back of my mind that kept asking, “are we really contributing anything useful here, can we really help these people?”

It’s 19 February 2016 as the Fast Forward group finally walks from the Teaching Hotel to the refugee centre. Mariëlle Heijltjes and Peter Berends had spent the previous three days working with the group to develop “awareness of impact,” “open mind, perspective taking, empathy” and “advocacy.” The training units proved to be an excellent preparation for the upcoming interactions. While the atmosphere was open and inquisitive during the training programme, the participants all seemed somewhat tense as they near the centre.

We were surprised to get an extremely warm welcome as we walked through the door at the refugee centre. Almost 40 of the inhabitants had spent four days preparing for this event. As it turned out, they couldn’t wait to meet us. They’re all smart, warm, enthusiastic and pleasant people who are eager to make themselves useful in this new world they’ve ended up in. I felt like such a fool: how could I have ever thought there was such a thing as a “typical refugee”? I realised these people all reflect their own societies just as we are all different. From the very first conversation onwards, the roles were clearly reversed. We were actually learning from them! They have great strengths thanks to their flexibility, perseverance and positivity.

When we got back to the hotel, I asked the group who wanted to reflect on our experiences. Although we all had our own take on the visit, everyone shared a sense of awe at what we’d just seen.

In some cases, there simply weren’t any words to express what we felt.

I decided to speak up. I wanted to say that I was overwhelmed by the inhabitants’ warmth, to compliment the group about their open attitude and let them know I was disappointed in myself to have gone in thinking we were there to help them, whereas the reverse proved to be true. Instead of words, though, only tears come out. I could finally let it all out. There, I’m glad I said it.

Still, what am I so glad about, exactly? I think it’s the fact that we really did manage to make contact. That one afternoon visit has since spawned a wealth of new initiatives that I had nothing to do with. Apparently, this sense of initiative and involvement is embedded in our SBE participants’ genes.

Here are just some of the examples I know of:

  • Some careful listening by Ingrid Rohde resulted in the idea of setting up a book drive within SBE. A total of 19 boxes filled with textbooks, novels, children’s books and reference works were delivered to the refugee centre. The inhabitants subsequently took the initiative to set up their own library.
  • Christoph Meng of the Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market offered to support the refugee centre by conducting research on aspects such as labour market mobility amongst refugees. This option is currently under discussion.
  • Dominik Mahr and Gaby Odekerken have also contacted the centre to discuss the idea of deploying several inhabitants to Service Science Factory projects and the SERVSIG conference in June. Not out of some sense of compassion, but simply because these people are experts with valuable contributions to offer the project group.
  • In fact, last year’s Fast Forward group is a bit envious not to have shared in the same experience. Isabella Grabner will be organising the FFWD alumni event, which she views as an excellent opportunity to further expand the network. This group is set to undertake another visit in the near future, which may well spark new initiatives.
  • This year’s ME Week’s Innovator Challenge was a platform for empowering entrepreneurial asylum-seekers.

Clearly, many good things can come out of a seemingly small idea. However, it is essential to take that first step. In fact, I would recommend it to everyone: just take a first step every now and then, even if you have no idea where it will lead you. It may even feel a bit uncomfortable at first. Once you’ve done it, though, you’ll help yourself and others to get ahead, get to know new people and appreciate their (added) value, or learn to see your colleagues in an entirely different light. I have no doubts the experience enriched all concerned: both the inhabitants of the refugee centre and the FFWD participants. I’m glad to have played my role as pebble in the proverbial pond.

Many people are making a big difference with seemingly small gestures. Rachel McCormack, a professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, US, has launched an initiative to deliver Arabic books to refugee children after she visited several refugee shelters in the Netherlands, and a Facebook exchange prompted Marie Beechy to begin a drive to donate baby strollers to refugees arriving on the beaches of Greece. Small gestures have far-reaching impact.

Postgraduate Education programme coordinator

Maastricht University School of Business and Economics




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