You are here

Three years ago, VUB launched its Welcome Student Refugees Programme, with the aim of giving refugees from Syria and elsewhere the chance to study and build a future here. At the beginning of the programme we talked to Antoine Bakhash; today we return to see how he is getting on.


Text: Femke Coopmans/Photo: Saskia Vanderstichele

For the Dutch version of this article, click here.

For 22-year-old Antoine Bakhash, this summer will bring the moment of truth. He’s worked hard on his Dutch, he’s studying in two fields via a special programme at VUB, and he’s determined to make the right choice about what comes next. He’d love to study law. Or maybe social sciences. Or maybe something else? It shows just how much has changed for him.


When we met him two years ago, at the age of 20, he’d been in Belgium for a year. He’d just made the harrowing journey from Aleppo and had been reunited with his parents and younger brother; the family are Christians, a minority group in Syria. He’d always been a good student. Since fleeing Syria he’d sometimes had trouble concentrating, but he hadn’t let it hold him back, he told us at the time, first learning Dutch, then studying bioengineering. “I was thinking of studying medicine. The plan was to study bioengineering or biomedical sciences for a year and then take the entrance exam to study medicine,” he said. “But I’d heard that the exam had become even harder, that I would have needed to study for another year, and that you only get one attempt a year to pass. If I’d failed, I would have lost two-and-a-half years. It didn’t seem feasible to me. So I thought, I’ve got other interests. History, politics, society. I want to use my talents to be socially active, to do something for the community. Something to do with politics, the government, the EU…” And that meant studying law, social sciences or political science.

I want to use my talents to do something for society
Antoine Bakhash

A final test

Since the second semester of this year, Antoine has been following two courses from the first year of law: philosophy of law and psychology. Alongside that, he’s taking courses that prepare him for studying at VUB. “I find psychology fascinating,” he says when we meet again. “Philosophy of law can sometimes be dull, but I’m not the only one who thinks that,” he says with a smile. “I think there are other fields that suit me better: international or European law, history of Belgian politics… But we couldn’t choose those.”


He sees this as a final test. By choosing two courses instead of the usual one, he’s set the barrier for himself extra high. “I want to see if I can do it. And if I can’t, well, at least I’ve had more language practice,” he says. Antoine loves languages, and he loves Dutch. Talking to people, networking, building his circle of friends – it suits him. At the last minute, he changed the location of this interview from his room in a shared house to the Opek arts centre, both of them in the Vaartkom neighbourhood of Leuven. There were too many friends hanging around his place. “I have friends everywhere. In Brussels, Leuven, in other countries in Europe, and of course in Syria. It’s a little difficult to make friends at university, though, especially if you start in the second semester, and it’s even more difficult in a theory-heavy subject like law. I’m also a little bit older and the war has left its mark on us. So my interests are often different to those of the 18-year-olds here.”


Aleppo is no more

When Antoine has to go to class, he takes the train from Leuven to Etterbeek. He’s lost his heart to Leuven. He’s been here two years now, and understands more than ever that the Aleppo he grew up in is no more. “People who still live there say that everything has changed. Even our community, even our streets, even people’s mentality. They are tired of the war. In the centre of Aleppo the situation is slightly better, but outside the city it’s terrible. Syria is going to have problems for a long time, I think. At least another 10 years. So I have no doubt: fleeing was the best thing for me. Here I can study, and in the future I can be a useful person for society. I hope.” Of course, he misses Aleppo, and he wants to return. “It’s still a part of me.”

“Because of the impact of the war, my interests are often different to those of the 18-year-olds here”
Antoine Bakhash


So perhaps studying law is a good choice. “Of course, I hope there’s a chance to do something there! To begin with, through my studies I will try to understand the situation better, from a different perspective. If I look at the region around Syria, I can say that freedom was never an issue for us. As a Christian, I belonged to a minority in Syria, so I had fewer rights. I could never have become president, for example. But I was happy. I could go to university, I could enjoy the weather, the social life was good there. Simple, but good. Comparable to somewhere like Greece, I’d say. That’s why I like being in Athens: it looks like Aleppo before the war. The chaos, the people always talking to each other, the good food, the warm weather… And a bit of corruption in the government, just like in Syria!”


But first, the short term. A long summer including planning for a trip to Lebanon, to a congress for young Christians from around the world. “If they can make it, I’ll meet my best friends from Aleppo there,” he says. Just like last summer, he will also be looking for a holiday job. “And apart from that, I want to make the right choice about what I study. I don’t want to waste any time.”


As a Christian I had fewer rights in Syria, but I was happy
Antoine Bakhash

Building a future for refugees


In 2015, the VUB set up a Refugee Student Programme to support the integration of refugee students. In May 2018, and additional track was introduced, called InCAMPUS - InClusive AcadeMic Programme for University Students. It is reserved for 20 students, and is a preparatory pathway for refugee students giving them the opportunity to develop their language and study skills,. It offers:

•             Intensive language classes in Dutch or English (in collaboration with ACTO)

•             Training on educational methods and study skills

•             Cultural orientation courses (in collaboration with the BON Inburgering Brussel)

•             Psychological support and counselling

•             The possibility to enrol in 1 or 2 regular courses in their chosen academic programme

For more information, click here