Language coach Eva makes a difference

'My' refugee and me

Communication student Eva Meester felt guilty. It’s not that she was doing anything bad – but she wasn’t doing anything good, either. So she became a language coach for Enaas, a Syrian refugee who wants to go to university.
By Eva Meester / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

I’m just about to leave when my roommate holds me back. ‘Is that what you’re wearing?’ she asks. ‘Isn’t it a bit much for Humanitas?’

I had not considered that. I considered myself from someone else’s point of view: bright blue coat, high-heeled boots, large gold earrings. Maybe it was a bit much. Feeling guilty, I switch my coat, take off some of my jewellery, and present myself for a second check. My roommate nods. ‘Better.’

A little later I join ‘my refugee’, Enaas, from Syria. She’s 26 and has been living in the Netherlands for a year. The IT degree she got in Syria is worthless in the Netherlands.


‘I would like to speak Dutch better’, she smiled, when we met. ‘I would like to go to university.’ It’s the best way to get her life, which changed abruptly when she had to flee civil war, back on track.

Enaas is waiting for me in the cafeteria at Humanitas. Other students and their coaches are bent over books everywhere around us. Enaas has done an impressive amount of work since the last time we saw each other – she has already made it halfway through her new book. She points at a row of words. ‘Quiz?’ she grins as she puts her pen to paper, waiting for me.

I never never have to prepare a lesson plan. Enaas knows exactly what she wants to learn. I’m secretly impressed with her motivation. She’s always ready, always on time, always prepared.

A good thing

Before I met Enaas, I went back and forth in my head for months. I wanted to ‘do something good for someone else’ – partly because I’d heard uplifting stories from friends who volunteer, and partly, I have to admit, because I felt guilty. Not that I was doing anything wrong, but I wasn’t doing anything good, either. That bothered me. Study and work are a necessary part of student life, but do I really need to fill up the rest of my time with lunch dates, shopping, and other nonsense? No. But how would I help – and who?

The two friends who sponsor a Syrian family told me about the Humanitas website, where there are lots of ‘good things’ to do. Like the project Language Coach for Refugees, where you can help a non-native speaker learn Dutch. They’re mostly refugees who need help passing their citizenship course or their state language exam.

As a third-year student of communication I felt it was something I should be able to do.


And so I signed up. Another plus: I could state preference for who I wanted to coach. I asked for a girl my age and the project coordinator immediately produced a folder. There were at least eight women under thirty who were looking for help who preferred a young, female language coach.

It was kind of weird. Here I was, shopping for a student on the basis of gender, background, and four lines of description.

But that is how Enaas and I met. At first I was apprehensive: could I do this? But after three months, we’re still having a good time.

Enaas is learning fast, and I’m learning too

Enaas is learning fast, and I’m learning too. I went into this not knowing anything about her culture or her language. She speaks no English and almost no Dutch, and I don’t speak a word of Arabic. But fortunately, there’s an app for that! Whenever she doesn’t understand something, she just takes a picture of the text and highlights the relevant sentence, which then translates into Arabic.


But I’m learning an even bigger lesson, and it’s not about language: I had no idea how important it is for someone like Enaas to learn her host language. Which means I am  also important to her, as her coach.

It noticed it for the first time when she invited me to her home after a study session. In her apartment in Paddepoel, she removes her headscarf and seems completely at ease with me.

I notice it when we greet each other, shaking hands and kissing each other on the cheek three times with a laugh, which has become our ritual since we the first time we were hopelessly confused about how to greet each other properly.


I notice it when she takes care of me and serves me tea with biscuits and a sweet pastry that’s like a cross between a croissant and baklava. ‘It’s from my country’, Enaas beams. It’s full of creme fraîche made from pistachio nuts and another ingredient I can’t identify. I’m not really hungry, but I take a bite. It’s good.

You’re my friend. You help me.

I also notice it when she asks me if I’ll join her and her husband for dinner. ‘I’ll cook for you.’

But most of all, I notice it when we’re doing a vocabulary lesson. She comes across the word ‘friend’. She hesitates, before smiling and pointing at me. ‘You’, she says. You’re my friend. You help me.’


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