Ammar Rubayi (34) fled from Iraq to the Netherlands in 2008. He recently graduated from Wageningen, thanks to a grant for refugee students. ‘I love the Netherlands.’
Ammar Rubayi is enthusiastic about the Wageningen approach to learning: ‘I had a lot more group work and presentations here than in Baghdad.’ Photo Sven Menschel
He still has nightmares about it. In 2008 Ammar Rubayi was kidnapped by a group of men in his home city of Baghdad. ‘It was a traumatic experience. I was kept in captivity and mistreated for several days. Eventually, with the help of my grandfather who lives in America, my family paid 10,000 dollars to get me released.
Ammar was left unconscious at the side of the road. It is still a mystery who kidnapped him. ‘At that time kidnapping was a business in Iraq. People were making money that way. It happened to me because I come from a well-off family: my father was a helicopter pilot in the army and my mother was a scientist with the ministry of Health.’
One thing was clear to Ammar: that he needed to leave Iraq. Since the American invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein, the country had become a dangerous and chaotic place. Ammar: ‘I was a pharmacist and worked in a children’s hospital. After work I went home as fast as possible. It was so unsafe on the streets that you tried not to be outside any longer than necessary. There were shootings everywhere, a bus could explode or a car bomb could go off at any time. I saw people change: they were stressed and scared.’
Ammar fled Iraq together with his father, whose solidarity was called in question after the fall of Saddam Hussein. ‘My father was no longer safe in Iraq. Hundreds of pilots were killed in the period after 2003.’Ammar travelled from Iraq to Turkey and from there to the Netherlands. ‘I was in a truck, behind the driver in the cabin. I had no idea where we were going. I had lost track of my father on the way.’
Ammar ended up in Amsterdam at the end of December 2008. ‘I can remember that it was cold, really cold. It was snowing.’ He took the train to the asylum-seekers’ centre at Ter Apel, where a long procedure was set in motion to get a residence permit. He moved from Ter Apel to Eindhoven and from Eindhoven to Heerlen. ‘It was a stressful period,’ Ammar says of that time. ‘I was in a constant state of amazement and confusion: what is going to happen to me next? I couldn’t enjoy the fact that I was in another world now.’ The only comfort was that he was reunited with his father in Heerlen.
In May 2009 Ammar received the good news that he was to get a residence permit. He moved to a flat in Zeist, started learning Dutch and preparing himself to go to university. The UAF, a foundation which helps refugees find work or higher education in the Netherlands, paid for his language courses and later his tuition fees and textbooks. He is grateful for that. ‘All refugees have dreams. They want to achieve something. My move from Iraq to here was like a birth: it’s as though you are starting a new life.’
Parties every day
It took a while still before Ammar could actually start on a higher education course. His father fell ill and he looked after him. In the end he started the Wageningen Master’s programme in Food quality management in 2014. ‘I am interested in food quality and for my thesis I could draw on my background in pharmacy to make links between food and medical drugs.’ The Wageningen approach to learning suited him. ‘Medical programmes in Baghdad are very stressful. You spend a lot of time in the lab and you get a lot of information in a short period. Here there was more group work and presentations. I didn’t find the material difficult: I was more qualified than you had to be for the Master’s. So I got good grades, sevens and eights.’
Wageningen student life suited Ammar too. ‘For students who live in Wageningen it’s a party every day.’ There are so many nice activities and interesting organizations. Ammar tried to get as involved as he could, which was a bit difficult since he lived in Zeist. ‘I did my best to stay as long as I could after classes, for group work or lab work. I joined in the Arabian Nights at ISOW.’ Ammar was also on the jury of the Teacher of the Year Awards 2015.
It has been a beautiful journey, from 2014 till now, says Ammar. ‘I love Iraq but I love the Netherlands too, you are in my heart. I like Dutch licorice and the cream cakes, and I barbecue with my neighbours.’ He doesn’t know whether he’ll ever go back to Iraq. ‘I want to build a life here, gain experience and develop myself. I was given the chance to study here and now I want to give something back. Integration is an important part of that.’
For this reason, his advice to refugees coming to the Netherlands now is: learn the language and get some higher education. ‘The experience you bring from your home country is not enough by itself. To succeed here you have to have studied here, so you need to get a degree from a Dutch university.’