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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
The Tandem project is an initiative that matches NGOs with refugees and asylum-seekers that want to do a two week-voluntary placement in Brussels

Hadi Abdul Hadi was in his third 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 his job, studies and family behind. ‘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 and we had to cross borders from country to country through a smuggler’, recalls this young Syrian who 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 seeker communities in Europe, so they organised a conference aimed at the refugee population. A friend of Natalie's told her about Tandem, who then matched Natalie with Hadi, who had registered with Tandem days before. Hadi’s legal background and experience as a refugee proved very helpful in organising the conference. For Hadi, even if two 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 Belgian capital with his father, where he has refugee status and a residence permit for five years in Belgium. ‘When you escape from war you will catch any hand that is given to you. They destroyed everything at my home’ he remembers.  He is doing courses in French and plans to complete his law studies in Belgium, ‘I hope to graduate, became a lawyer and start a new life’ he states confidently.


The aim of the Tandem initiative is to help refugees and asylum seekers start a new life in Brussels. It was launched on 20 June 2016, on World Refugee Day. Since then, 36 host organisations have registered and 34 refugees have volunteered in this initiative organised by staff of European NGOs.


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


Nadzeya Laurentsyeva and Wali Ahmad Yar at CEPS offices.


Usually the interview to gain refugee status lasts four hours. It only took Wali Ahmad Yar fifteen minutes to gain this in his interview. The 23-year 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 became 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 aged 25, he is finishing a Master in Political Science at the University Libre de Bruxelles and is doing the two week volunteer placement through Tandem in the Centre for European Policy Studies. Nadzeya Laurentsyeva, a Research Fellow of CEPS, decided to take part in Tandem because they were evaluating the work of an NGO in Munich that helps asylum seekers get in contact 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’ Wali states. Tandem has been key in helping Wali ‘find a way within international institutions’, because previously he had no contacts and all his internship applications 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 Wali  have proven so valuable, that she is confident that ‘there might be an opportunity for Wali to stay longer as an intern. It seems possible’.



Published: Mon, 03/04/2017 - 10:42

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