As I enter the ISOW building, Duivendaal 7, for the second time that evening together with an African student, there are just two MSc students letting their hair down on the dance floor. One of them is Tamer El Mazen, DJ for the evening, whose enthusiasm gets us dancing as well. The rest of the students pour in, and in no time the room is full. An hour earlier University Rector Karssen performed the official opening ceremony. Although he must have opened countless buildings and conferences in his time as rector, he admitted that this was the first time he had actually cut a ribbon. The official part of the ceremony, which included the ribbon cutting, took place in the University main building, in order to accommodate the large numbers attending this important occasion.
In his speech Karssen recounted that he was first approached by group of international students in 1987 with a request for a meeting place-cum-worship room for Muslim students. The main problem was finding a suitable location. When for the umpteenth time a group of enthusiastic students approached me this year I decided it was time to do something." Karssen noted that while the number of Dutch students is on the decline, the number of international students keeps rising. At the moment there is only one page in the University Newspaper in English, perhaps one day there will only be one in Dutch." Karssen believes it is important to invest in the welfare of international students as well as their education. One day as he looked out of the window of his office the Rector noticed the building opposite.
Said building, Duivendaal 7, dates from 1880 and is one of the oldest university buildings. It was originally used to house the agricultural implements from the department of Agricultural Engineering. Many years later Ankie Lamberts from the Dean's Office remembers having gym lessons there in her first year at secondary school. After that it was used for a while as a laboratory. Finally on a chilly november evening in 1996 an international procession winds its way through the building which was recently renovated at a cost of one hundred thousand guilders. It still smells of fresh paint. Flickering candles form the letters ISOW. After this brief invasion it is back to the main building for a drink. One of the waitresses asks nervously what the English word for shrimp is before she begins her rounds with the snacks.
Before the 150 students return to their club for the second time for the real party I am joined by Alenka Verbole. Verbole is one of the active members of ISOW, and tells proudly that she chose the curtains. The photos gracing the walls of the club are also hers. One of the pictures one a prize back home in Slovenia," she adds as we return to the ISOW building. One of the first groups which wants to make use of the large room is a Greek dancing group.
In the kitchen Khem Raj Dahal from Nepal keeps an eye on things. The pans and cooking utensils on the shelves still have their price tags on. The idea is that students can cook and eat together here if they want. The kitchen is equipped with a secondhand coffee machine, fridge and dishwasher from the department of Student Affairs. As no one has figured out how the dishwasher works the glasses are washed by hand. I was sure that Khem came from Nepal, but suddenly I hear him chatting away to a fellow student in Russian. It turns out that he also spent six years studying in Moscow. He was also involved there in the social club for international students.
Looking at the dancers through the kitchen door Khem remembers that in Moscow free dancing always alternated with ballroom dancing. Although there is no formal dancing in the main room there is no lack of variety in dance styles. Some African students are not impressed with Latin American music, and the reverse is also true. Lebanese DJ puts on music to please all tastes and dances along to everything, twirling the next CD around his finger.
Between two numbers PhD student Ruba Mohamed explains that the adjoining room will be a reading room, with international newspapers, and hopefully a library. So if you know anyone who has books they no longer want.... In the back room I notice chairs, but the newspapers aren't there yet. The same room will also be available to Muslim students for Friday prayers. According to Khalid Shah the prayer rug has not yet arrived, but students will be able to use the room from the beginning of December. Shah is one of ISOW's initiators and founders. Obviously proud and relieved that they've pulled it off he continues, I believe that with ISOW we have provided a strong foundation. It is also up to future students to continue to develop and enjoy this initiative."
The future reading and prayer room is being used as the bar this evening. Una May Gordon pours drinks. Handing over a beer she explains that alcohol will only be served at parties, which will be organised every so often. As I leave the party around eleven thirty, the paint smell has already disappeared. ISOW will be open from Friday as a meeting place for international students.