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Letting off steam on the hockey field

From interpreting in Arabic and a visit to the dentist to a game of hockey. The temporary reception of 123 refugees in the University Sport Centre is running smoothly thanks to the enormous support from staff and volunteers. ‘It’s the children who most need attention.’

Bonding on the sports field

‘My friend, my friend!’, a Leiden student calls out when he receives a good pass from a young man from Syria. Or is it Iraq? When you’re on the hockey field, where you come from is irrelevant; the sports field is a place where Leiden students and other volunteers can bond with men, women and children fleeing a violent home country. ‘They’ve probably never held a hockey stick before, but that doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm,’ commented Marlies van der Sluijs.

Marlies van der Sluijs met twee andere vrijwilligers.
Marlies van der Sluijs with two more volunteers.

Letting off steam

Van der Sluijs is a master’s student of Public International Law. When she heard that the University Sport Centre was going to be a temporary home for 123 refugees, she immediately offered to help. Van der Sluijs: ‘There are some awful things happening in the world. Even though I can’t actually change anything, I want to do my bit. Just by playing hockey with some of the refugees for a few hours, maybe it’s a chance for them to forget their worries for a while. You notice that they really want to whack the ball, maybe as a way of letting off steam.’

Arabic books from the UB

In the Sport Centre, Veronique, a recent graduate of medicine, is talking to a toddler from Mongolia. A group of men are playing table football. Other residents are relaxing on a settee provided by EL CID, while others are reading – including books in Arabic, among those lent by the University Library.

Volunteers not advisers

Twee ambtenaren van de gemeente Leiden helpen in het tijdelijke kledingdepot van het sportcentrum.
Two employees of the Municipality of Leiden helping in the temporary clothing store at the sport centre.

When the announcement was made on 21 October that the sport centre was going to be used as a reception centre, in no time at all more than 700 volunteers had come forward. People are so willing to help, commented Neeltje van Aardenne in the hall of the complex. She normally supervises activities like EL CID, but now she is helping coordinate this emergency reception centre. ‘We selected volunteers who are available on several days so that the refugees aren’t confronted with too many different faces. Students of Arabic, and Child and Education Sciences are here, as well as law students who are familiar with asylum law. But they’re not here to give advice, Van Aardenne stresses. ‘Everyone is well aware that we are only providing temporary accommodation and that we aren’t here in any official capacity. We respect the privacy of the refugees and don’t actively ask about their situation.’

Ladies hairdresser

When selecting the volunteers, the organisers paid particular attention to the wishes of the temporary residents. Their main interests seemed to be sports, special activities for children and, for instance, a women’s hairdresser who would cut women’s hair in a room accessible only for women. Some of the women have not removed their headdresses in weeks because of the huge communal halls where they have been staying, where men are always present. The Dutch lessons are also very popular. Students of Arabic help with the lessons and also accompany people to the dentist, to act as interpreters.

Work out what they need

Not everyone is joining in the activities, according to Van Aardenne. Some people prefer to keep themselves to themselves and spend most of their time in the dormitory. ‘People are very grateful for what we are doing, but we have to bear in mind that it’s a brief stay and their future is very uncertain. It’s mainly a case of trying to work out what they need.’

Volunteers from Child and Education Studies

Mesman nam onder andere speelgoed mee dat eerder gebruikt is voor onderzoek.
Mesman brought toys that had been used in research.

The families are particularly pleased with all the activities organised for the children; this gives the parents the opportunity to rest and the children really like to play with the enthusiasatic volunteers. Judi Mesman, Professor of Education and Child Studies, is one of the volunteers. Why is she volunteering? ‘It’s a dire situation and I can’t just stand on the sidelines. One of our students, Nazime Tunç has set up a Facebook page ‘Refugee children, USC, Leiden' and she has had an enormous number of responses. I’m helping Nazine coordinate the volunteers.’


Vulnerable children

Mensen uit de omgeving doneerden massaal kleding en spullen.
Mensen uit de omgeving doneerden massaal kleding en spullen.

A separate play room has been set up for the children. Mesman, whose field of research is vulnerable children, has brought with her toys and puzzles that have been used in research projects. What strikes her when she sees these young refugees? ‘These are vulnerable children, but they want to do things that give them pleasure. What they really like is the attention; that’s more important than a lot of toys. Their parents have been in a very stressful situation for a long time, so they’re not always in the right frame of mind to play fun games with their children.’ The language barrier posed no problems. ‘You can do a lot with gestures. I’ve brought my 11-year-old daughter with me and the children immediately took her hand and they started playing together. It’s good to be able to make a contribution. But what the refugees really need is a stable place to live. It’s only then that they can start to rebuild their lives.’

Twin buggy

It didn’t only rain volunteers. After an appeal on Facebook and Twitter there were soon dozens of people at the door with boxes of toys and bags of clothing. One mother from Mongolia with two babies was delighted with a twin buggy that was donated by a helpful resident of the city shortly after a call was put out via Twitter.

Thank you

Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker thanks all the staff and volunteers who in their masses were ready to help. ‘People are still offering to volunteer and responding to messages on social media for different items needed by the refugees. It’s not just the accommodation in the sport centre that has been so well organised, there’s also an impressive programme of activities for the refugees. I am extremely grateful to all those who have played a part. It was also such a pleasure to realise that the students and sports enthusiasts who were unable to use the USC for a week understood and appreciated the need for this emergency arrangement. And the Pieterskerk has said that they won’t be sending us a bill for holding the exams there during the week.’


The refugees are staying in the sport centre from 23 to 30 October. Out of respect for their privacy, it has been agreed that they will not be interviewed while they are here. The group of 123 people - from Syria, Mongolia, Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan and Serbia - is made up of 40 single men and the remainder are families. 

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