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When your country is burning and you’re not there

Céline Zahno,
19 oktober 2023 - 10:01

Imagine something terribly happens in your village or city. But you are not there: you are at university in Amsterdam thousands of kilometres away. This is the reality for a lot of international UvA students, which is often overlooked. How do they cope with this?

Sofiia Bezuhla from Ukraine doesn’t get homesick. After all, she no longer has a home she can be homesick for. “My city was bombed, everything has been destroyed and everyone has left.” Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the 21-year-old economics student has only been back to her home town of Kharkiv for about forty minutes to provide humanitarian aid. “Now Amsterdam is my home away from home.”
Sofiya Tryzub-Cook is also from Ukraine; she was in her second year of Politics, Psychology, Law & Economics (PPLE) during the invasion. Until then, that was the only home she could return to. “My parents live in China and given that China was completely locked down during COVID, my Ukrainian relatives were the only part of my family that I could visit. It felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. But luckily I had good friends around who supported me.”
It is sometimes difficult for Dutch UvA students to imagine what it’s like to be at university in Amsterdam when you come from another country. Especially if that country is faced with major problems such as a war or a natural disaster. This article attempts to show how complicated it is for some students to be here, far away from their friends and family, when a catastrophe has taken place. How do they manage to keep going?
As Eren Konyar (they/them), a third-year PPLE Bachelor’s students from Turkey, found out, you can’t always count on getting support. They felt less supported by their immediate environment when the Turkey-Syria earthquake took place last February and not many people appeared to notice their problems: “I was very depressed for two weeks, but very few people offered to help. I just had to get on with my life”.

“I was very depressed for two weeks, but very few people offered to help”

This sorrow, which is difficult for outsiders to understand, can often disappear under the radar within the mix of all the various nationalities that make up the UvA. At present, 34 per cent of the total of 42,171 UvA students come from abroad – twice as many as five years ago – and come from more than a hundred different countries. That means that their lives are similarly determined by aspects such as the geopolitical situation of their home country or the policies of their government.
Social support
Eren was relieved to find at all their Turkish relatives were all right, but when they saw that so many people were dying and that most of the aid was coming from the people of Istanbul instead of from the government, they were “hugely disappointed” in their government. At the same time, Eren was upset about the responses they received from those around them. “People sometimes find it difficult to empathise with all the different events that are taking place. So a lot of people expected me to just get on with my life.”

“Sometimes my Turkish friends are my only refuge and I’ll only speak Turkish for a whole day”

Eren found the period following the earthquake to be difficult. It was the little things, such as people not asking about their family or their boyfriend expecting them to get over the disaster after a few days, which made them feel closer to their Turkish friends in Amsterdam. “Sometimes my Turkish friends are my only refuge and I’ll only speak Turkish for a whole day. I’ll go to the Turkish supermarket, I’ll meet up with Turkish friends and call my mother.”
Ceren Abacioglu is a postdoctoral research at the Department of Psychology at the UvA and carries out research in to cultures and barriers that people might experience. “Studies show that social support can help alleviate the stress that someone experiences when adapting to a new culture.” She believes that these adjustments will be even more difficult for international students if something bad happens in their home country. “At such a time, your heart and your head will be in another country and so international students can feel very isolated in the Netherlands when they are unable to share their grief with the people around them. In such cases, it can be beneficial to meet others who are going through the same thing and it is normal for them to group together.”
“What’s important is that people try”
Sofiya has had different experiences to Eren. She has a lot of appreciation for her Dutch friends and friends from other countries who have read up on the events and helped her through the initial shock. “Whether it was showing up at protests or reading the news regularly – what’s important is that people are trying.”
Something that she sometimes found frustrating what that her nationality all of a sudden played a more important role – and not only in a positive sense. “People often treated me like I was made of fragile glass, which is funny on the one hand, but equally I also think that people just didn’t really know how to act.”

Comfort in communities
Something that helped Sofiya cope with these events was to help out herself. “It was difficult at first: you feel out of place because of what is happening in your own country, whereas you live a safe live in Amsterdam. At the same time, volunteering did also help because I could focus my attention elsewhere.”


Sofiia Bezuhla started setting up the NGO UAID, a non-profit humanitarian aid organisation in Ukraine, ten days after the invasion began, because she wanted to do something to help. At the same time, these ten days were the worst time she had ever been through. Her mother was unable to leave her hometown of Kharkiv while it was being bombed. “My boyfriend and I watched all the events unfold and would call up my mother whenever anything happened. At that point, my life and things like university weren’t very important to me. I tried to support people and I understood that humanitarian aid from the Netherlands was the most effective thing I could do, given that all the supply chains had been destroyed.”

“I was shattered but also had to do a full-time degree programme on top of collecting donations”

She says UAID also helped other students affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “We supported one another. It quickly became a close-knit community and we helped each other in terms of our mental health. I now count these people as some of my best friends.”
Eren was also involved in relief efforts and organised a bake sale immediately after the earthquake in Turkey to collect donations for the affected areas. Although “a lot of great people helped out”, it was equally exhausting for those involved: “All of the initiative had to come from people who were already burned out by the earthquake. I was shattered but also had to do a full-time degree programme on top of that”.
How the UvA can help
Sofiia spent a lot of time and energy on setting up and managing an entire NGO. “I didn’t really go in to the university for three whole months. I’d only study for exams on the nights before.” Fortunately, the Faculty of Economics and Business cancelled the midterm exams for Ukrainians that were scheduled shortly after the start of the invasion. “That was enormously helpful.”
What is the university’s role in relation to disasters? How can lecturers help and what policies are in place? “In general, our study advisers and student psychologists are on hand to provide a sympathetic ear after any shocking events and they can also refer students to other practical forms of assistance”, says a spokesperson for the UvA. In addition, the Profiling Fund can provide students who have incurred delays in their studies due to disasters with financial assistance. It has also been decided that Ukrainian students who started their degree programme last year will pay the tuition fees that applies to European students instead of the much higher institutional rate.

The university aims to set up communal spaces for students and members of staff who have been affected by shocking events. Immediately after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, several gatherings well held within the various faculties. “Students and members of staff were given the opportunity to express and share their concerns and their feelings”, says the spokesperson. Following the Turkey and Syria earthquake, the UvA “set up a number of heart-warming initiatives aimed at supporting students and staff members with family members in the region”, including fundraising campaigns and gatherings to discuss the events. “A lot also takes place during lectures, where lecturers will take the time to reflect on the disaster or emergency that has taken place.”

“At a social level, I withdrew to a certain degree for at least the first four months”

Eren remembers that their friend had to return to Turkey because she had lost friends in the earthquake disaster. “The UvA did not relax its attendance requirement, so I didn’t even try to get an exemption.” Fortunately, in general, the teaching staff were understanding and flexible with deadlines, says Eren.
“A problem shared is a problem halved”
Ceren Abacioglu believes it is vital that the UvA, which is frequently the direct point of contact for international students, should recognise such difficult situations. “These students need to be informed about the support and assistance available and where they can find like-minded people.” This is especially crucial for those who do not yet have a large social circle in Amsterdam.
Sofiya echoes Abacioglu”s concerns about how difficult it can be to have a social life when so much is happening back home. “At a social level, I withdrew to a certain degree for at least the first four months. I did speak to the good friends that I had.” She hopes that everyone who goes through something like this has a network to fall back on or is able to find one, for example through volunteering. Because, Abacioglu says, quoting the old proverb: “A problem shared is a problem halved”.

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