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The journey from being a refugee to a volunteer in Brussels

Natalie Kontoulis and Hadi Abdul Hadi. Photographer: Lisa O'Leary
Natalie Kontoulis and Hadi Abdul Hadi. Photographer: Lisa O'Leary
Tandem Project is an initiative that matches NGOs with refugees and asylum seekers that want to do a 2 weeks-voluntary service in Brussels

Hadi Abdul Hadi was on his 3rd year of Law studies at the University of Aleppo when the war broke out in Syria. He was 22 years old and was forced to leave behind his job, studies and family. “I took the decision of coming to Europe in 2015, it was a long way through Turkey” remembers Hadi. “We had a lot of barriers, to cross borders from country to country through a smuggler” recalls this young Syrian that now lives in Brussels.


Natalie Kontoulis is the Advocacy officer of ‘End Female Genital Mutilation’ a European Network, based in Brussels. Female Genital Mutilation is a practise that can affect certain asylum seekers communities in Europe, so they were organising a conference aimed at the refugee population. A friend of Natalie told her about the Tandem Project, an initiative that matches NGOs with refugees that want to volunteer for a 2-week period.  Tandem matched Natalie with Hadi, who had registered days before. The legal background and refugee experience of Hadi proved very helpful in the organisation of the conference. For Hadi, even if 2 weeks felt “too short”, it was a valuable experience; as he puts it “I had the opportunity to take a look into how a European office works and how they organise meetings”.


Hadi is now 26 years old and lives in the Belgium capital with his father, where he has refugee status and a residence permit for 5 years in Belgium. “When you escape from war you will catch any hand that is given to you, they destroyed everything at my home” remembers.  He is following French courses and plans to end his Law studies in Belgium, “I hope to graduate, became a lawyer and start a new live” he states confidently.


Help the refugees and asylum seekers start a new live in Brussels is the aim of the Tandem initiative, launched 20 June 2016, on the World Refugee day. Since then, 36 host organisations have registered and 34 refugees have volunteered in this initiative organised by staff of European NGO’s.


Host organisations provide a daily allowance of 25eur per day and insurance. Tandem collaborates with the Flemish Agency for Volunteering in Brussels to ensure all legal issues are clarified and that the volunteering cannot be done for commercial businesses or private individuals.


Nadzeya Laurentsyeva and Wali Ahmad Yar at CEPS offices.


Usually the interview to achieve the status of refugee lasts 4 hours. For Wali Ahmad Yar 15 minutes were enough. The 23 years old afghan journalist had published a report exposing corruption in the Afghan government. “I had never thought of fleeing Afghanistan, but once I published the report, things were controversial with the government and the Taliban and I had to flee”. He got a visa and left his city, Ghaznī, for Brussels, where he arrived in 2015.


Two years later, now age 25, he is finishing a Master in Political Science at the University Libre de Bruxelles and doing the 2-weeks volunteer experience through Tandem in the Centre for European Policy Studies. The Research Fellow of CEPS, Nadzeya Laurentsyeva, decided to take part in Tandem because they were making an evaluation of a NGO in Munich that helps put in contact asylum seekers with possible employers. The role of Wali has been very “helpful interviewing people from Afghanistan and Pakistan in their native language by phone to fill in the survey”.


The young Afghan is regularly in contact with other refugees, not only in Belgium but other EU countries, “we are always talking about our problems, so this could be really helpful for my work here” declares Wali. For him, Tandem has been key in helping him “find a way within international institutions”, because he had no contacts and all his application for internships had been rejected.


Nadzeya outlines that “the goal of Tandem is to let people meet, it is not so difficult to employ a refugee”. In fact, the insights of Hadi have proved so valuable, that she is confident that “there might be an opportunity for Wali to stay longer as an intern, it seems possible”.

Published: Thu, 04/05/2017 - 14:43

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