A Personal account of life at ACLO

The Tent Diaries

When master’s student Rafel Fernandez heard that the RUG planned to house homeless international kids in army tents at the ACLO sports centre, he was curious: how did students feel about camping out with strangers? He decided to find out for himself.
By Rafel Fernandez

Day 1

27th August

I’m the first student to arrive at the tent camp that the university has installed at Zernike. The tent camp is located at ACLO, the university’s sports center. When I arrive, I feel out of place. Everyone else has sweaty towels around their necks, flush from working out.

Everyone is looking at me; I must look like I’m ready to go camping, my heavy rucksack loading my shoulders down with everything I own. Finally, a woman who seems to be in charge of the tent camp approaches, smiling. She steers me toward the tent camp, apologetic.

‘The tents are what they are, nothing luxurious’, she says, trying to lower my expectations. When I ask if she is ACLO staff, she tells me she isn’t, that she just got assigned the project of putting up the tent camp. She smiles again, ‘you’ll be all right’. I don’t think either of us is convinced.

The tent camp consists of three big, white, military tents. Upon first inspection I can safely say that the interior is not worth the luxury of 87,50 euros per week – and I’ve lived in a lot of less-than-inspiring places.


I have experienced homelessness before. The first time was in Bristol (England), where I spent six months living in a hostel because I couldn’t afford rental accommodation. I have to say, those conditions were far better: for 70 pounds a week I got a bed and had access to the kitchen facilities. The second time was at the beginning of this year, when I first moved to Groningen to start a Master at the RUG. There was no tent camp then.

Now, my curiosity about how other students cope with homelessness at the start of the busy first semester has led me here, to experience yet again what is like to be without a home – and to share that experience with you.

My guide runs quickly through a list of rules. Then she leaves me alone, standing in the middle of the empty tent. My only company is thirty spartan beds and a slight sense of abandonment.


Just five minutes later a guy comes in, tall and tanned. His name is Andy; he’s a half-Spanish, half-Danish guy in his early twenties who will be studying ‘Art History’ at the RUG. Today is his first day in Groningen, but he doesn’t look particularly excited. We go for a walk through the facilities of the ACLO. ‘Surreal, right? A tent camp for homeless students’, he marvels, as if he can’t quite understand how he ended up here.

We wander aimlessly past people waiting for their Pilates lesson. They seem well rested and unconcerned about where they will sleep that night. Andy tells me that apart from ACLO, he hasn’t been anywhere else in Groningen yet.

On our way back to the tent, we are approached by someone new. A journalist. Journalists have been chasing me all day long, wanting to interview and film me, but I’ve refused every time. Now I understand Andy’s initial hesitation when I asked about his experience: ‘You’re the third one to ask today.’


You feel pressured when journalists ask for an interview. You’d rather keep your feelings and thoughts to yourself, instead of offering them to a random person who has been waiting for you to come out of the tent, pen and paper at the ready. A person who can’t actually help you.

Just when I thought that Andy and I were going to be the only ones in the tent tonight, Mehdi comes in. He is a cheerful guy from Dubai, who is in his third and last year of ‘Chemical engineering’ at Hanzehogeschool. He greets me with a wide smile. It seems nothing can wipe it off his face. He laughs at the prospect of spending the next seven days – or more – in a tent without any privacy at all. His positivity is contagious.

Day 2

28th August

Mehdi is up at 5 am for the first of his four daily prayers. He is so used to waking up at this time that he doesn’t even need to set an alarm. He goes outside the tent and comes back five minutes later to go back sleep – while I lay awake in the early morning light until everyone gets up around 9 o’clock. No one has had a good night. The room was cold, and the thin tent walls whipped and cracked in harsh night winds.

The tents stand out against the football pitch and sports centre like great flags announcing surrender. They strike an odd contrast against the modern and futuristic Zernike campus. As Medhi and I explore, we struck by the complex’s beautiful modern design and the breathtaking science building’s entrance.

But most striking of all is the obvious gap between all this beauty and the dreary, dismal limbo in which the newly-arrived students are stuck. Mehdi is right – ‘surreal’ seems to be the adjective that best suits such a dismal contrast.

Good news

But today, Mehdi has received his first good news since arriving in Groningen: he will be able to register at the municipality using the tent camp’s address. Salim, our new tent mate, is also happy: he has just managed to reserve one of the apartments going up at the Sugar Factory.

‘I hope to be provided with a better temporary accommodation next week until I move to the apartment’. We celebrate these small victories together at the sports centre’s canteen, which is surrounded by tennis and volleyball courts filled with students. ‘I’m not into sports, but to see these people enjoying their spare time, without worries about housing spoiling it?’ Mehdi shrugs, ‘it makes me want to take up a sport.’

Day 3

29th August

As the number of students in the tent camp gradually increases, we are starting to feel a real sense of comradery. After a friendly morning beginning in the tents with warm coffee provided by ACLO’s staff, we all troupe off to the canteen for breakfast together.

Everyone complains good-naturedly about their cold night. ‘I was about to take my blanket and go to sleep in the showers’, jokes the new guy from Greece, Pelopidas. ‘What if it rains?, he asks. It’s a valid concern – on a daily basis, gusts of wind fill the tents, shaking them violently. We all wonder if the tents are strong enough to prevent rainwater from seeping in.


Only three days have passed by since the tent camp opened its doors, but people are already tired of being here. Everyone hopes to find proper accommodation as soon as possible. Andy is expecting to leave in a few days. He got lucky and found a room through Lefier. ‘I’m not sure about it, but I think I’ll be signing the agreement of lease and getting the key today or tomorrow’. Everybody is happy for him.

After breakfast, most of the tent dwellers will head to the city centre for viewings or to complete enrolment at the university. Although they don’t have any idea what comes next, it can’t be worse than this. They seemed determined not to let the challenge of finding a place to live affect their moods for long. Pelopidas grins and tries to pump us up, ‘let’s go fellas, we don’t have time to waste.’

Reflections of a tent dweller

During the three days I spent in the tent camp, I heard many different takes on the ‘solution’: some people were simply grateful to have somewhere to sleep; others felt disappointed and isolated from the university.

In my opinion, a tent on the outskirts of town shouldn’t be even a temporary solution to house newly-arrived students. This is the type of solution that a university comes up with when it mainly focuses on – as Pieter Polhuis puts it last week – ‘academic training’. Such an inward focus means turning a blind eye to real issues happening outside faculty walls.

If the RUG wants to keep attracting international students, the focus has to shift. I don’t have a definite solution to the housing problem, but one thing is clear to me: no matter how many temporary accommodations the university puts up every year, the housing crisis won’t go away until the university prioritizes every aspect of student life.


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