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Quantum optics for asylum seekers

The Clinical Epidemiology department at the LUMC has set up a series of lectures for asylum seekers. The series has become a huge success.

Aylan didn’t want to fight in President Assad’s army, so he fled the country when he was 18. After a dangerous journey via the Mediterranean Sea and across the European continent, he eventually arrived in the Netherlands; in Katwijk, to be precise. He has been living there for some time now in an asylum centre.  

Old mountain bike

For today Aylan is not a refugee. Together with some twenty other asylum seekers from Leiden, Wassenaar and Katwijk he is listening attentively to a lecture given by Dirk Bouwmeester on quantum optics. He came to Leiden on his old mountain bike specially for the lecture. Guest lecturers have recently started offering a series of weekly talks for asylum seekers in the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC).

Bouwmeester, who won the Spinoza Prize in 2014, talked about the history of light. He took the audience with him on an intellectual roller coaster that started with Persian Ibn al-Haytham and ended with the ‘Leiden’ scholars Christiaan Huygens and Albert Einstein. The theories on galaxies and black holes were eagerly absorbed.  And, as in every ‘real’ lecture hall, there has to be one student who is more interested in his mobile than in the lecture. 

The Hippocratic oath

The series of lectures was the idea of Dennis Mook-Kanamori and Frits Rosendaal, both from the department of Clinical Epidemiology at the LUMC. In the autumn holiday Mook-Kanamori and his wife and children were on the beach on the Greek island of Kos. He helped provide medical attention to the groups of refugees who were landing every day on the island in their ramshackle boats. ‘I didn’t take the Hippocratic oath for nothing,’ he remarked matter-of-factly.   

Back in the Netherlands, Mook-Kanamori  saw that a centre for asylum seekers was being set up behind his beloved LUMC. The former TNO building on the Wassenaarseweg will be home to around 250 asylum seekers. ‘They want to do more than just play table tennis. It’s important to organise sports and games, but they also need some intellectual challenges.’

The Dutch polder model

Together with Professor Frits Rosendaal, Mook-Kanamori put together a complete series of academic lectures from scratch. Interesting subjects are presented from every possible discipline within the University: genetics, linguistics, the origin of the Dutch polder model and now quantum optics. Mook-Kanamori: ‘Ssomeone will be coming shortly to talk about Palmyra, the Syrian city that has been almost destroyed by Islamic State. I had expected some doubts from the participants, but they even find that interesting.’ 

The series of lectures only really got going when Mook-Kanamori and Rosendaal managed to organise an allowance for the travel costs for the asylum seekers from Katwijk and Wassenaar. ‘What was the matter? Apparently, not all the centres gave the asylum seekers pocket money,’ Mook-Kanamori explained. ‘With little or no money, bus tickets are just too expensive. This travel allowance means that everyone can come to the lectures.’  

A new field of study?

The lectures help the refugees to pick up the thread of their lives again. In fleeing to the West, many of them have had to stop their studies, and even those who have completed a study realise their diplomas are not worth very much in the Netherlands. Listening to lectures on such a broad range of subjects means they have the chance to orientate themselves towards a new field of study. And Aylan?  In Damascus he worked in a garage. He’s now interested in studying electrical engineering.

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