News - October 13, 2011

From refugee to biotechnologist: a well-earned degree

Maryam Amini (33) fled from Iran to the Netherlands in 2005. Far from her family, she graduated this year from Wageningen University. On 15 October she will be feted for this by minister Leers.

Maryam Amini: ‘I just had to leave, it was no longer safe for me.'
Back in 2005 it looked for a while like the start of an Iranian Spring. It was a period of modest political reforms, whose effect was felt at the universities too. At that time, Maryam Amini belonged to a group of students who organized lectures and meetings about political and social issues. ‘It was usually about the rights of women and children, subjects which sometimes conflict with Islamic law', she explains. For this reason the group eventually attracted the attention of the authorities. Six years later, she still finds it difficult to talk about it. ‘Many terrible things happened', she says hesitantly. ‘I would rather not say any more about it. I just had to leave; it was no longer safe for me.'
Together with her father, she took a plane to the Netherlands. She ended up in an asylum-seekers' reception centre near Eindhoven. Her mother, three sisters and two brothers stayed behind in Iran. ‘I miss my family very much. Luckily they are doing fine, and we speak regularly on the phone. My brothers and sisters are not politically active like I was, although they are proud of me.' The first few years in the Netherlands were hard. ‘After all I had been through, I was happy that everything was calm now. But every day I had the uncertainty as to whether I could stay here. Only in 2008 did I get a residence permit.'
Something to do
In the Netherlands, Maryam started to learn Dutch straightaway, first at the University of Maastricht and then at the ROC college of further education in Utrecht, where she also passed exams in biology, chemistry and physics. Then she got in touch with the UAF, the association for refugee students. ‘While I was still in the application procedure as a refugee, I was not allowed to work but I could study. So then I didn't have to stay at home all day. Refugees who come here are very vulnerable. You have to have something to do, otherwise your energy drains away and you get depressed. Studying can help you spend your energy on good things. And it also helps you get to know the country better. I am grateful to the Netherlands that I got the opportunity to study here.'
With the help of the UAF, Maryam was admitted to Wageningen University, where she embarked on the Master's in Plant Biotechnology. ‘The day I heard that I could come and study here was one of the most important moments in my life! It meant I could start building a future here in the Netherlands. I read my letter of admission two or three times before I believed it. Then I phoned my mother immediately.'
Politically active
The first year was tough. ‘I was a Master's students so I was expected to have adequate background knowledge. But the method of teaching is very different here. In Iran, where I had studied agricultural science, there is a lot of theory and very few practical assignments. There is not much equipment and what there is, is old. In Wageningen techniques are used that I didn't even know existed!' Nonetheless, Maryam felt at home in Wageningen from the start. ‘The atmosphere here is very unique, and so international. I am not the only student who is far from home.'
Maryam graduated in April. She lives with her husband and four-year-old son in Ede. ‘He is Iranian too; we met each other at the asylum-seekers' centre. He is now studying in Utrecht and works evening and night shifts to support us. It is tough for him, so I am very proud of him.' They are still politically active together. ‘We have contacts in Iran and try to send in information through them. We want to change the situation, but without violence. The regime in Iran is so brutal that a revolution would lead to a civil war like in Libya.'

Minister congratulates refugee students
On 15 October, Maryam Amina and 200 other refugee students will be congratulated by minister of Integration Gerd Leers and UAF chair Ruud Lubbers, at a graduate ceremony held by UAF. The association for refugee students UAF helps refugees and asylum-seekers with advice and information during the course of their studies, as well as with financial support.
There are currently five refugee students at Wageningen University and one at Van Hall Larenstein.