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Khaola Al Rifai from Syria was working as an au pair in Brussels when the war in her homeland broke out. This year she was awarded her master’s in linguistics and literary studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. “VUB was the only university that offered me a glimmer of hope that I could complete the studying I’d begun in Syria,” she says. We spoke to this enthusiastic young woman who has since become a member of staff at VUB.
“When I came to Brussels, I’d already started a bachelor’s in French literature,” Khaola Al Rifai says. “I didn’t have my degree yet, but I didn’t want to start again from the beginning. VUB allowed me to carry on studying at the level I’d achieved. I had to follow two preparatory programmes and take lessons from the first, second and third bachelor year, but other universities didn’t even offer that. That’s why I always say that VUB chose me, rather than the other way round.”
A life in Brussels?
Despite her nationality, Khaola is no refugee. “I could still go back to Syria,” she says, “and that was always my plan. But now I don’t know anymore. I can see myself building a life in Brussels.” If she doesn’t return to Syria, she will be like many of her compatriots. “It’s typical for Syrians to have family everywhere,” she says.
Together again after five years
Five years since she last saw her own family, they were finally reunited on 1 December, for the graduation ceremony at the faculty of Arts and Philosophy. “They came to Belgium specially: my father and mother from Syria, my sister from Turkey and my brother from Spain. After the degree presentation, they stayed for a week, except for my mother, who stayed here for two weeks.”
It’s difficult to say when they will see each other again. In the meantime, Khaola is working as a coordinator at VUB’s International Relations Office (IRMO), and she would be happy to continue her academic career. “I’ve been to a couple of PhD open days,” she says. “I’d like to do something to do with social linguistics.”
Working as a volunteer
It’s something she already has practical experience of, having spent time volunteering at La Petite Ecole, a project that helps the children of Syrian refugees integrate in the local school system. It’s no small matter: most of these children, aged between six and 15, are illiterate. So they have to learn French – the project is in Wallonia – on top of learning to read and write. The project helps the parents, too, many of whom come from a culture where education is not universal.
“You know, I don’t intend to stop after my master’s,” says Khaola. That’s why Ann Peeters, professor at the Arts and Philosophy faculty, is so important to her. “Without her, I wouldn’t be here,” she says. “She has helped me and so many others enormously, just by accepting everyone as they are and listening to their story. This openness is typical of the whole of VUB. On my first day, a classmate asked for my email address so they could send me their lecture notes. Believe me, that sort of thing will stay with me my whole life.”