Creating common ground through education, students redefine refugee crisis

Some students learn, some students teach. Some do both. I talked to the co-founder of an organization that is redefining what "integration" of refugees means through a student-led program.

Right2Education (R2E) started out as a university project but developed into an independent non-profit organisation seeking to empower refugees. It was picked up by the UN's "Together" this year, a campaign seeking to safeguard the dignity of refugees and counter the rise of xenophobia and discrimination.

R2E is also part of "My University Cares Too," a platform provides that information about "projects, initiatives, activities and events across all institutions of higher education in the Netherlands, that are created especially for refugees."

So how did R2E came to be? Students of Amsterdam University College (AUC) wanted to create a space for refugees where they can be more than “refugees;” a  place where they can explore different aspects of their identity — being a student but one of them. In January 2016, they devised a program that offers social activities and Dutch and English language classes taught by students to refugees at their university. That program became R2E.

When I asked her about her reasons to get involved, R2E co-founder Ellen Ackroyd said she believes we have a collective social responsibility to do these things. She continued by explaining how the project changed her own misconceptions: "The preconceived idea of refugees created by the media and politicians made me nervous in the beginning. But by simply talking to our students, I quickly realized how wrong my assumptions were.”


In the beginning, the program was “an answer to the lack of opportunities for refugees.” Quickly it grew to be much more than about learning Dutch; the programme became an opportunity for both AUC and guest students to connect, cultivate friendships, and learn about each other’s experiences.

As the program grew, AUC students expressed the desire to learn some Arabic as well, so guest students became teachers too.

Layla Gegout, a R2E buddy and teacher, said that the experience enriched her understanding of the refugee situation. She was most surprised to learn that some refugees fled by choice. “Because of the media, you think that everyone was forced to leave and that everyone had extremely traumatic experiences, but that is not always the case.”

R2E encourages their own interpretation of “integration”, where the objective is not assimilation of refugees into the new culture; it is finding a way that both cultures can co-exist, understand, and learn from each other.

Layla explained that R2E wants to avoid any sense of hierarchy, “we are not helpers,” she said. Some days, she experiences being a teacher in the first part of the day and a student of Arabic in the second part, creating a culture of equality in the program.

For Ellen, when first entering such a program as a teacher or a buddy, nobody knows how to do it “right.” People are mistaken that finding common ground is about finding “sameness” or what you have in common. “Common ground is what people create together. If you go into it consciously trying to find something in common, it will be a projection of your assumptions, not a reflection of your actual common ground.”

Over the last two years, R2E hosted 250 guest students, with almost a 50/50 ratio of men to women last semester, teaching them Dutch and English. Guest students are trained to take official Dutch and English exams, for example IELTS, and with the certificates they earn, they have entry possibilities to universities and/or jobs.


This program is an example of a proactive, feasible solution in what has been framed as an endless crisis. When I asked her about it, Ellen exclaimed “I'm boycotting the term ‘crisis'. Instead, in this situation, I see opportunities and solutions.” 

The board of R2E attended a UN conference on refugee education policies in New York on the 7th of June to present their programme. Ironically Jessica Khalil, the Buddy system and Events coordinator, and a Syrian member of the board was not able to join the conference due to the US travel ban. 

More about: refugees / students / Amsterdam / UN

More Stories