Xenophobia at the Academy

Xenophobia at the academy
Leiden University’s Unwanted International Students

republished in Leiden’s student newspaper: http://www.mareonline.nl/archive/2018/10/18/opinion-xenophobia-at-the-academy

            Welkom! This word was repeated throughout the University Orientation week; it was the first word on its booklet. Welcome to Leiden University. The mayor of Leiden gave a speech to tell us how pleased he was to have international students. Welkom. The first word taught at the one hour-long Dutch course the University provided. Welkom. After this week was over, I no longer heard the word. Instead, after I related the fact that I had no housing, what I most heard were sighs of exasperation. “You are part of the problem,” a white Dutch woman told me bluntly on the train.

            My story of going from Orientation week “dorm” in a sports hall to camping to couchsurfing to temporary sublet to unsure futures is not exceptional for international students at Dutch universities. It is, in fact, normalised as a rite of passage; “everybody has a hard time finding housing”, “that’s normal”; “this happens every September, every September there are at least one-hundred students who have to move from couch to couch, hostel to hostel, pay exorbitant prices, have back-pains, spend hours sending requests for housing, with this process taking from one to three months; some students can’t take it and just go back home.”

            No, that should not be normal. It should not be a “normal part of moving to the Netherlands”, a fact of life decided by the fates from here on to eternity. No. There are reasons why things are so, and there are means to change them. The reasons? There is not enough student housing because Dutch universities are not legally required to provide it for their students; barring the legal requirement (and the funding), they mostly don’t. The means? Universities must fight to not have their budgets cut, and instead of using the funds for another canteen, perhaps invest in the well-being of their students by providing them with a roof.

            I did not feel welcome to the University of Leiden when I discovered that most the ads on Kamernet were posted by (white –they all put photos of themselves) Dutch students, for other (presumably white) Dutch students. “We are a group of fun students happy to share dinner, drinks, watch films together. Love, PS NO INTERNATIONALS”. The ubiquity of the all-caps reinforced the unwelcomeness. After being turned down by posting after posting after posting, it almost began to feel natural that a Dutch girl in my class asked me if I spoke Dutch, and when I answered no, looked puzzled and asked: “Then why did you come study in the Netherlands?”.

            Much like other international graduate students, I came to study here because the University of Leiden has a world-class reputation in Linguistics, Middle Eastern Studies, Asian Studies, Psychology, and Neuroscience, among other fields. I knew its name long before I even fathomed my graduate degree; scholars from Leiden appeared in peer-reviewed articles, their research featured in the news, and books from its publishing house, Brill, had accompanied me throughout my studies. The lingua-franca of academia in the 21st century is English, and it becomes of a graduate programme to teach in the language in which its prospective scholars shall write their articles (for those who rail against English replacing Dutch, many Dutch scholars published in German throughout the 19th and 20th century –before this, they wrote in Latin, which for centuries was the language of instruction). Dutch academia has no interest in remaining insular; by publishing in English it has a worldwide projection. International students foster connections, and Dutch universities desire them; they desire these students, however, without taking responsibility for their stay in the Netherlands.

***

“There are only three students who students who still need housing in Leiden” stated Michelle in het Veld to a dumb-struck audience of twelve students seeking housing, all of whom knew at least three others in the same situation.

            “How can you say this after listening to us? Why are you intentionally ignoring us? We are sitting right in front of you,” I said exasperated, feeling aghast at having my existence denied.

            On September 28th 2018, a group of international students joined by the youth group of the Socialistische Partij (“ROOD”) convened with members of the University’s Executive Board; Michelle in het Veld (Teamleader of the Housing Office), Jeroen ‘t Hart (Director Student and Educational Affairs), Caroline van Overbeeke (Press Officer), and Ferdy Poppelier (Director of the Housing Office). The previous week, after having gathered more than twenty students for meetings and heard their stories, we had gone to the Dean’s office with a list of demands:

  1. Take responsibility for housing. Now; a place to stay. In the short term; affordable housing that lives up to human decency at a reasonable distance of university.
  2. Provide an immediate solution for losing our visa because of a lack of BSN.
  3. Speak out against the national system which forces the university to enroll students to gain enough funding.
  4. Sign a covenant with the Leiden municipality and housing corporations to provide for future student housing.

                        The Dean did not sign on to these demands; he did, however, tell us (through a spokesperson) he was interested in a discussion (without his actual presence). A few emails were exchanged, and a date was set that same week, during the class hours of many of the students. Only a select group could therefore attend. 

            So, there we were, at a platform to voice the troubles that had befallen us. Inci Erbilen from Cyprus has to commute from Amsterdam, spending €20 on transportation every day; she could not get a student discount card due to lack of BSN, which can only be obtained when one has a permanent address. A student from India was at the “solution” provided by University for the three students it was aware of that still needed housing: he is paying €200 a week for a shared room in Noordwijk, an hour’s bike-ride away from the University, and has to leave by October 24th (the University has not extended its rental of the holiday house beyond that date). Since he does not hold EU citizenship, if he does not find housing that allows him to register for a BSN, he will be forced to discontinue his studies.

            After hearing these stories, the board did not respond with a word of empathy. Instead, shrugs, eye rolling, coldness. It was repeated many times that “most students find housing”, so “this isn’t really an issue”. Michelle in het Veld was adamant that since two-thirds of Leiden’s students do not even sign up for University Housing, it was not needed. “But this is because the deadline for applying to housing is BEFORE most of our admissions’ decisions. I did not apply for housing because I did not know I would be attending Leiden, and I did not want to lose €350” I said. I might as well not have said anything. In het Veld apparently had a preconceived notion about international students that our reality did not match, so she ignored our reality. She answered that “many internationals shop around for universities in the Netherlands, then they apply for housing then they cancel, and this creates lots of trouble for us, so we need to set this fee and we need to set this early.” I told her I only had applied to Leiden. She then said that if I were not accepted, I would have gotten a refund –this is not on the University’s website. Mostly, her attitude was that we internationals had to change, and not the Housing office’s absurdly early deadline.

            In response to in het Veld’s many comments on housing being a “non-issue”, we brought up the problem of students needing to return to their home country. Jeroen ‘t Hart’s comment “well, then there will be more spots left over” elicited a few smiles and giggles from the board members, and only abject horror at their complete lack of empathy from our side.

            We brought up the problem of so many anti-international ads on the housing market. They all spoke in unison: “there is nothing we can do about that!”. We pressed them on the fact that the University has a public voice, a social media presence, can and does release statements on its website. We pleaded to Caroline van Overbeeke, the press officer, that the University publicly announce it is against discrimination of room-renting internationals, particularly by Dutch fraternity students. She agreed, albeit repeating the overstated comment “but we cannot change that.” It has been over a week, and no statement of any kind has been released. Similarly, in het Veld promised to email the University’s departments to have them collect data on students still in need of housing, and, potentially (at our suggestion) to ask them to email all faculty to ask if anyone could rent rooms to students, since lack of housing causes academic problems. Nothing has been done. ‘t Hart’s promise to see if students could obtain a BSN via the University has also had no follow-up.

            Ferdy Poppelier, who spoke very little, condensed the University’s attitude towards internationals: “Frankly, it is your fault if you came to live in a foreign country here without already having secured accommodation.” Silence. Laughter from a Spanish student who had only received her acceptance letter three weeks before the start of term. When people do try renting before they arrive in Leiden –before they actually get to see the house for which they must pay a deposit — many of them are scammed, as was the case with a French student who was scammed out of €1100. She began looking for housing before arriving in Leiden, as the University suggested; is the fact she was scammed and, four months later, still has no housing, her fault? Georgian student Irine Shotashvili began looking for a house in February and only found one in October. From September to October, she slept on the floor for one month; now that she did find a place, she was so desperate for it that she had to take it. no registration, no real contract. Is this her fault? His statement erased all sense of responsibility from the University, and puts the burden of academic well-being on its students.

            This brings us to in het Veld’s comment which opened my summary of these events. “There are only three students who students who still need housing in Leiden.” How did she arrive at such a number? Well, during Orientation week, some students had come to the Housing Office and left their emails; others had gone to their heads of department, who forwarded their emails to her. From this list of thirty-six students, only six accepted her offer of a shared room in Noordwijk for €200 a week. Of these six, three had found housing. Therefore only three still needed housing! An undergraduate could point out the error of her sophistic logic: not everyone participated in Orientation week, many people who had gone to the Housing Office were told to leave because there was no housing left and were not put on any email list (myself included), of those who went to their heads of department, many were told it was not their job to do this (when I told my my Coordinator of Studies that I needed housing, she told me “I can do nothing about this, I’m actually really annoyed because one student wrote me an email to tell me she had to drop out of the course because she could not find housing”), many of the people who did not take the Noordwijk “solution” did not do so because it was too expensive. The Housing Office has a communication problem; the hundreds of homeless international students jumping from campsite to floor to expensive Airbnb went unnoticed on its radar, which only detected three. I suspect that this lack of detection is actually intentional.

***

            I was reminded of the behavior of the board members of our prestigious university when reading White Innocence by Dutch-Surinamese author Gloria Wekker (a book assigned to me by a Leiden professor). The book details the various insidious ways by which many white Dutch deny their racism by assuming a naive, “innocent” attitude, all the while blaming the victims of their racism. Wekker quotes a letter written by Dutch nationalists to critics of zwarte Piet: “If you want to live here, you have to adjust to us. Otherwise just leave!! Nobody asked you to come!!” How these words echoed the attitudes of the four white Dutch on the board, who could not bring themselves to empathise with their own students, when these students were foreigners seeking housing in their land. The university displaced its ethical (not legal, they made that clear enough) responsibility over the well-being of its foreign students onto… its foreign students. What if said student could not pay the €350 housing fee? They do not fathom this possibility, for, the board made clear, they homogenise all their foreign students as elite children who come to the Netherlands for a privileged experience, rent a huge studio, then leave. Some of us are here because we are following our dreams to pursue a course which does not exist in our home countries, or not with the correct resources. Some are spending their life savings to be here, some are taking out loans. When they tell us the system is as it is, and we must adapt, they are basically saying: do not criticise the system, you have no right, you are not Dutch, if you do not have the money for our basic services, do not come. The attitude denies foreigners their fundamental rights for the mere fact that they are not Dutch; their display of nonchalance facing our inability to find a home was a mirror-image of the racist strategy described by Wekker as “seeking to humiliate and wound, to extirpate those who do not belong here from the nation”. The attitude shown by these University representatives towards its international students is the mirror image of Dutch politicians towards its immigrant citizens. We are second-class students, our interests come in second place, and most importantly, if the system is inadequate for us, it is our fault and we should change, rather than the system itself.  If dozens of students at each Dutch university (thus hundreds of students total) were forced to discontinue their studies because they could not find housing, this would be a national outrage. Once these students are foreigner, they do not matter. The fees they have paid, the time they have invested, the emotional overhaul of moving to a new country only to be forced to move back: these are irrelevant to the institution if the nationality of the sufferer is non-Dutch.

            Leiden University’s xenophobia is institutionalised, derivative of the structural xenophobia of Dutch society. It desires to reap the benefits of internationalism all while ignoring its international students, much like the Netherlands enjoys cheap migrant labor without giving rights to these migrants. Like Dutch racism, they deny it is an issue by not bringing it up, or say that it’s affects so few people that it does not matter –meaning that the pain of these people is not relevant. One remark brought up frequently by Dutch people when I tell them of the difficulty to find housing is: “It’s difficult for Dutch students too.” Like Wekker’s “What about the captain?[1]“, this statement equalises the difficulty faced by one who can commute from home, on a free student transport card, with one who has no contacts in the country, no BSN, can only select houses which allow registration in order to obtain this BSN, faces discrimination on the market and the fear of being expelled from the country if the BSN is not obtained in time.  

            Leiden University has welcomed scholars from foreign lands for centuries [2]; one of the ideals of scholarship is to place knowledge before nationalism and ethnocentrism. The University must adhere to these ideals; there must be a coherence between the internationalism professed by its academics and the practices of the institution.

To aggressively ignore our pleas is xenophobic.

To not speak out against xenophobia is xenophobic.

For a university to not care whether or not its foreign students can continue their studies is xenophobic.

For a university to tell its students to “just go home” is xenophobic.

To do nothing is xenophobic.

[1] Remark by a liberal Dutch politician when she told a story about an 18th century Dutch captain who raped a black slave.

[2] 831 English students between 1575 and 1650; 2,000 English-speaking medical students between 1575 and 1875.

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