The Bigger Picture #3
Fereshta from Afghanistan ‘I always pictured myself being free’
When 24-year-old Fereshta Rashidi thinks of her arrival in the Netherlands, she remembers the police stopping her family on the train to Amsterdam, and her first night in a cramped sports hall in Ter Apel, amongst hundreds of other people on the move.
Ferestha had just turned sixteen when she and her family left Afghanistan in 2015. For four months, they lived in Turkey without any support from the authorities – to make ends meet, Ferestha had to work eight to twelve hours a day in a restaurant.
When they unexpectedly found a way to come to Europe amidst the refugee waves from Syria, the family decided to leave once more: ‘There was no future for us in Turkey, so we had to leave everything behind again. Just as we did in Afghanistan.’
There was no future for us in Turkey, so we had to leave everything behind again
Fereshta, her mother, and her little brother entered the Netherlands in September of that year. Initially, they were sent to the refugee camp in Ter Apel. From then on out, they were moved from one small town to the next. ‘As I spent those weeks in the sports halls, in every one of them people welcomed us with clothes and books and cards that said “You’re welcome in the Netherlands and we wish you a good life here”’. She holds on to some of these gifts to this day.
Still, living conditions were tough. The camps were overcrowded and hardly afforded any privacy. Around October, the family arrived in Groningen. Left in limbo, they waited for a decision from the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) for over a year. Eventually, they were granted permission to stay.
‘I think that is when my new life began’, Fereshta says. In Afghanistan, as she grew older, she could no longer cycle in the streets; it was against societal norms, because of how men might react. ‘I’ve always pictured myself being free and able to ride a bicycle, but I never imagined living in the Netherlands. Now, every time I step on my bike, I think of how unpredictable life can be.’
Two years later, the family moved into a new home. As she settled in, she noticed a change within herself; she felt she was growing up faster. Too old to fully assimilate into Dutch culture, yet too young to hold on to everything she had known in Afghanistan.
Fereshta deeply misses Afghanistan and ‘the feeling of just living in your own country’, the close-knit community she left behind, the warmth and hospitality of the people, their spontaneous nature that makes you feel welcome even if you were to surprisingly visit for a cup of tea at night, and their generosity – the small gestures like arguing over who gets to pay the bill, rather than how much each person owes.
This is my new home, I have to start living
But she realised that she had to consciously choose to feel at home in the Netherlands: ‘This is my new home. I have to start living. Like, for real, I need to find a job, I need to learn the language better… It’s my life, I am responsible for it’, she says. So she started working, cleaning offices at Hanze University every morning, while also enrolling herself in the VAVO programme at Alfa-college in Groningen to prepare for higher education.
She remembers those years as a true immersion in the fast-paced Dutch life, working different jobs alongside school, filling her days from morning to night. As she turned 18, she also had to take care of her family’s paperwork, emails, calls, and appointments, managing finances and contracts. ‘My mother didn’t speak Dutch, so I had to do literally everything; it wasn’t just my own appointments, but also every appointment that my mother had. I didn’t have much time to have fun or make friends.’
In 2019, Fereshta started studying international relations at the University of Groningen. But balancing family, work, and academic commitments was more challenging than she had anticipated. ‘It was my first year and already, everything was exhausting.’ The situation got tougher too when the pandemic hit and she lost her job.
So she decided to ask for help. ‘I talked to the study advisor. I said: “Okay, I’m dropping out, but I still really want to do this study.”‘ Eventually, Fereshta was able to deregister and, a year later, resume her studies. She is now in her second year and is managing much better.
In the meantime, the country she left behind was brought back into the international consciousness with the Taliban’s recapture of power in 2021, following the withdrawal of US and NATO troops. It is mainly girls and women whose lives are different now, as they can’t go to school or university anymore.
It’s hard to imagine what my life would be like in Afghanistan
‘I’m, of course, very concerned about how women in Afghanistan are now living and how they are deprived of their rights to education and work’, says Fereshta. She believes the future under Taliban rule is uncertain, to the point where she cannot imagine returning to Afghanistan for at least the next decade.
While Fereshta was still able to go to school in Afghanistan, these limited educational opportunities are now destroyed. ‘If I were in Afghanistan now, it’s hard to imagine what my life would be like. I don’t see any light to describe it; it would have been a complete dark nightmare.’
She also fears the world is forgetting about the situation: ‘No one talks about it anymore. It’s not important anymore for people here.’
Looking at her own future, Fereshta’s concerns extend beyond herself. She lives with her mother, and while many of her peers socialise in cafés and bars after class, Fereshta prefers to go home and spend time with her: ‘She suffered for us and took so many risks to bring us here.’ She feels a strong obligation towards her mother, a sentiment deeply rooted in Afghan culture.
‘This codependency exists because of our experiences, but I prefer more connection with her over having dinner together now and then.’ At the same time, she longs to experience independence. As Fereshta considers pursuing a master’s degree, perhaps in a different country, she struggles with balancing her own aspirations with those responsibilities. ‘There are decisions that I continuously have to make. It’s still a difficult situation.’
You can be vulnerable here, you can ask for help
The consideration and helpfulness of the university through all of this impresses Fereshta. ‘I think the educational institutions here are very understanding. You can be vulnerable. You can ask for help.’
She also found support outside the university from UAF, the oldest refugee organisation in the Netherlands, which has provided invaluable guidance throughout her studies. When Fereshta could not afford a laptop to continue her education, UAF offered her a loan: ‘I had to work for some months to earn the money, but they simply solved the problem for me.’
However, it took a long time before Fereshta made use of the support systems available. ‘I sometimes wonder why I didn’t reach out earlier. They could have made my life so much easier. But there was just this thought in my mind that this is life. I thought I was responsible for everything; I had to handle everything myself.’
She wonders whether it took her so long because of the mindset ingrained in her from Turkey, where her family had to rely solely on themselves. Or because of the rather inconsiderate and rigid mentality of her school in Afghanistan: ‘I cannot envision myself going to the office of my school and telling them that I’m experiencing burnout or I am facing some unforeseen circumstances, and asking them: “Can I do this later?” or “Can I have more time here?”. You have twelve years. If you pass, you pass. If you don’t, there is no concession.’
Now, she has realised she was not accountable for her situation. ‘It’s circumstances I didn’t even choose. In the Netherlands, if you have a problem, even a tiny problem, there is always someone responsible and willing to help. Don’t suffer in silence! Seek help!’
The Universitair Asiel Fonds (Academic Asylum Fund, UAF) was established in 1948 and promotes the rights of refugee students and professionals. It offers them advice, guidance, and financial assistance for their studies and work, with the aim of furthering their integration into the Dutch labour market.