It was during my second week in the AZC in Crailo that I convinced myself to go to a library and try to see how I could learn Dutch. I asked the librarian for help. I told her that I was new here and wanted to start learning Dutch. She led me to a big shelf full of books. I could recognize the word Nederland but it was not clear why sometimes it is written with an s at the end and sometimes without. So I decided to choose an English book to learn Dutch. The only book that I could find, and no complaints, it really helped, was Dutch for Dummies.
It all began with buying a second-hand bicycle
I came to the Netherlands more than 5 years ago and applied for asylum. I received my permission to stay (verblijfsvergunning) in 2013 and then I received a letter from the DUO that I now had 3 years time (and a loan of 10,000 euro) to integrate. Well actually by integration they meant that I needed to pass one of the designated tests. For me and many people like me who have escaped from their countries, the way to make a future in the Netherlands is by passing the integration exam and learning the language. It was a challenging process of my life. Here is short look at my story.
It all began with buying a second-hand bicycle. Thanks to the UAF, a non-governmental organization that supports refugee students, I could bike to a language school in Utrecht, and as a former teacher, I can say it is one of the best in this country. However, not every newcomer has that privilege. If you are not supported by the UAF, and in order to attend more serious classes, you must be the in the possession of an official status. Otherwise, if you are not a client of the UAF, you could only learn a little bit of the language. But only learning at school is not enough. As a newcomer who wanted to learn Dutch, I wanted to check out different sources including educational films, texts and so on.
If someone wants to learn English, having access to internet is somehow enough for them to develop their English. There are vast resources of language material for English students and teachers, such as films, podcasts, PDF files, exercises and much more. And guess what, they are free! From the AZC where I lived, I tried to search for the same material, to learn Dutch. This did not prove to be successful. Sources are limited and mostly are related to language schools that require that you pay to have access. Some sources are untrustworthy and/or are written in difficult-to-understand language, which is the most important obstacle for people at the B1-2 levels to read Dutch. However, I should confirm that in recent years more content has been added to the cyber world to support the newcomers, while a huge amount of the new content to learn Dutch and learn about the Netherlands has come from the newcomers themselves.
"I have become more and more convinced that the refugees themselves can play a role in the process of integration by helping each other."
I see little attention being given in Dutch media towards the role of foreign media in the process of learning the Dutch language and culture. I am talking about the development of new ethnic media in the Netherlands, made and run by refugees themselves, to support their ethnic groups in areas such as learning the language, regulation in the Netherlands and news. The main characteristic of these groups can be summarized in two lines: They are broadcasting news and information about the Netherlands, in the refugees’ mother language. I shall add here that they are very popular among the target groups. And to support this claim, I should mention that currently, as a part of my thesis (Master New Media Utrecht University) I have done research among the residents of the AZC Utrecht. I have also found out that these types of new media are in the forms of websites, Wiki-type blogs, You Tube channels, Facebook pages and groups and communication apps including WhatsApp, Telegram and Viber channels.
Two examples can be introduced shortly:
- The Facebook page The Netherlands news in Persian which distributes news, language tips, and information in Persian, for Iranian and Afghan newcomers.
- Another platform, which is very popular among the Syrian and other Arabic-speaking refugees in the Netherlands is Holland in Arabic.
News and basic information in mother language
So for many refugees like me, who want to speed up the process of learning Dutch, and access views about life in this new society, turn to the internet for new sources. In addition, although they really like to learn about Dutch society, the language barrier does not allow them to access Dutch media and online/offline sources. That’s why ethnic media is becoming increasingly popular on the internet. These media platforms should be compared to expat websites; however they are in Persian and Arabic.
As I am conducting my research on Facebook usage by refugees for the University of Utrecht, I have become more and more convinced that the refugees themselves can play a role in the process of integration by helping each other. Also working for a project by the NPO Net in Nederland which is an experimental online platform, encouraging access to Dutch media using the refugees main mother language – Arabic, along with English, Dutch and recently Tigrinya has persuaded me that the mother language can in fact assist refugees in gaining access to the infrastructure of the society such as the media.
Finally, I want to make the claim that after 5 years, I am not yet integrated. Although I have a NT2 II, there is still a long way to go, when it comes to the Dutch language. I believe that the media, if well planned, can help me to move forward, and the ethnic media can encourage me and people like me to learn more Dutch. As I addressed before, many refugees are not waiting for a governmental budget, but are anonymously contributing to integration of their diaspora, by establishing new media, from Facebook pages to websites. I believe that these initial steps can and should be mapped and supported.