More Than Practicing Dutch: Being a Language Buddy for VluchtelingenWerk Nederland

by Anne Flake

There are many ways in which the “Global Challenges” we study at Leiden University College manifest themselves at a local level, which implies that there are local opportunities to make a practical contribution. In the context of the highly politicised debate on migration and diversity, for example, it is possible to directly assist in the integration process of immigrants.

Compared to other countries, immigrants in The Netherlands are required to pass very tough language and culture tests. The required level of Dutch has significantly increased and since 2013 immigrants are expected to pay for their own inburgeringscursus (language and culture classes). These were first organized by the municipalities, but now immigrants have to take classes at private language schools, for which they can take a loan up to 5.000 euros from DUO. Simultaneously, the consequences of not meeting the standard have become more serious, with potential expulsion to their country of origin as punishment. This increased pressure has made many immigrants with a temporary residence permit even more vulnerable.

Luckily, there are organisations that offer support to immigrants: VluchtelingenWerk Nederland (the Dutch Refugee Council) is one of them. They do this, for example, through linking a language buddy (volunteer) to someone who is learning Dutch. In my case, it means that I visit Ilhaam (not her real name), a Somali mother of six and grandmother of one, for 1.5 hours a week to practice Dutch. In the beginning this was quite a challenge, since her Dutch vocabulary was very limited and my Somali non-existent. However, it quickly improved thanks to the help of her sons (who attend school at Johan de Witt College and ROC Mondriaan), the broken English of her husband, and my drawing skills.

Being a language buddy is in many ways about more than practicing Dutch. I can help them with practical and cultural issues (i.e., I am one of the few “Dutch” people Ilhaam is in touch with), and I am also learning a lot from Ilhaam and her family. About, for example, Somali culture and food (yes, chances are high that you will be invited to stay for dinner), but also about the challenges that arise when arriving in a new country, and being forced to integrate in a certain manner and how it affects each family member differently. That it can also lead to friendships is proven by the fact that my family and I still regularly have dinner with a family from Iraq whose language buddy I was five years ago.

In short, it is very rewarding work and many people simply need the extra support in order to pass their tests and secure their stay in the Netherlands. If you are interested in becoming a language buddy just contact VluchtelingenWerk Nederland. Even if you do not speak Dutch, there may be other ways in which you can get involved!

Anne Flake is a third-year student at LUC, majoring in International Development.  This spring she is completing her capstone thesis on the consequences of opening Eurodac to national law enforcement authorities and Europol.