News - January 8, 2009


VHL student Mohammed Sabihi was in the national press recently because Steenwijkerland town council threatened to stop his social security payments. The refugee vet from the Sudan has to withdraw from his Biotechnology course in Leeuwaarden immediately and start applying for jobs – a requirement that faces many educated refugees.

Steenwijkerland town council wants refugee vet Mohamed Sobahi to stop his studies at VHL Leeuwarden.
‘I’m ambitious and I’m in a hurry’, says Sobahi. At forty seven years old, if he still wants to make something of his life in the Netherlands, he needs to get on with it. As an asylum seeker, he was forced to tread water for eight years until he got his residence permit in 2006. He would have preferred to get straight on with gaining a Dutch veterinary qualification so that he could practise his own profession again. But the University of Utrecht thought he was too old.

So Sobahi is now following an intensive three year course in Biotechnology, in order to do something related to his field. Because he is over thirty, he doesn’t qualify for a student grant. His fees are paid by the UAF, a national foundation that supports refugee students. ‘The problem is, however, that I can only do this course full time. That’s why I need my social security payments, whereas the council requires me to get a job.’

A waste of capital and of talent, thinks Erik van den Bergh of the UAF, who says that there are about thirty thousand highly qualified refugees in the Netherlands, most of whom are not working at their own level. Working on the basis of the Work and Social Security Law, some councils say that, just like all the others, educated refugees must get to work as quickly as possible, if necessary in factories. Van den Bergh says that particularly refugees with medical qualifications rapidly see their chances of doing the necessary refresher courses to practise their profession go down the drain. ‘Councils are going about it quite arbitrarily. Secretary of State Aboutaleb claims that the law offers scope for making exceptions, but a lot of councils prefer to stick to the letter of the law and operate a blanket policy of discouragement.’

The UAF negotiator does sense a change of heart, especially in middle-sized towns with their own educational institutions. Van den Bergh is particularly positive about Wageningen, and Leeuwarden has also adjusted its policy on refugee students after lobbying by UAF. ‘In smaller municipalities some people may be taken aback if an Afghan doctor reports at the desk. For a long time, the problem in the big cities has been the fragmented bureaucracy, but that is changing too.’ For example, under pressure from the town council, Eindhoven recently changed its policy so that thirty two highly educated refugees still could follow HBO or University courses to prepare them to return to work.

According to Henk Boxem, Councillor for Integration in Steenwijkerland, certain details got lost in all the media attention to Sobahi’s case. The fact was that the council had initially agreed to his following a university course. When that didn’t work out, Boxem claims, Sobahi went ahead with the course at VHL without further consultation. 'We realized this when we checked. I can understand his drive and I admire his fighting spirit, but it just doesn't work like that. In principle we stick to a twelve month norm for people reintegrating in the labour market, but we are certainly open to making exceptions. So I would say, come and see us.’