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Leiden helps refugee researcher make a new start

What happens if you are an academic forced to flee your home country and find yourself here in the Netherlands with practically nothing? The Hestia scheme offered by the Dutch Research Council (NWO) gives refugee scientists the opportunity to resume their academic career in the Netherlands. The scheme means that the Institute of Psychology now has a new member of staff, Reha. ‘I’m happy that I can again be doing what I was trained and have a great passion for.’

Reha’s name has been changed, and we do not disclose his home country to protect his identity.

When Leiden psychologist Anke Klein and her new colleague Reha talk about their research project, they can barely contain their enthusiasm. They plan to study how the treatment of children with anxieties can be improved. They’ve already worked out the research design and Klein has introduced Reha – virtually, at any rate – to many of her colleagues in Leiden and at the international universities that she works with. Reha’s appointment became official on 1 July. ‘Now it really does feel like we’re moving forward, even though we’ve already done a lot,’ Reha commented. 

Political refugee

Reha has been in the Netherlands for two years now. He and his family had to flee his home country, for political reasons. Since then, they have spent over a year and a half in asylum centres. ‘In the first centre, we had to get used to no longer being in the Middle East. When we moved to the second asylum centre after a few months, I started to plan how I could get back to work.’ Back home, Reha’s research focused on positive psychology: a field within psychology that studies positive traits and experiences, and how to use them in treatment. A friend who had fled to Germany advised him to get in contact with researchers in his field at universities in the region. I sent a lot of mails because in the meantime we had moved from the asylum centre in Maastricht to the one in Apeldoorn!’

Support programmes

Despite all his mails, no job materialised, largely because it’s not possible to work without a permanent residence permit. ‘They did tell me that I could attend lectures or take courses at some universities. He was also given tips about support programmes for refugee academics, such as Scholars at Risk and Scholar Rescue. ‘And that’s how I found out about NWO’s Hestia programme.’

Hestia programme

The Hestia programme serves, as the NWO terms it, as an incentive to make the Dutch science and academic job market accessible to refugee academics. The leaders of research projects funded by NWO or ZonMw (the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development) can qualify for Hestia funding to appoint a researcher with refugee status to their project for 18 months. 

New opportunities

Anke Klein from the Institute for Psychology is lead researcher of such a project; she had no qualms about registering her research for this programme. ‘I believe it’s important to do what I can to help, not just in my work, but in general. This NWO initiative that offers refugees new opportunities in academia is a great idea. I’m only too happy to share my research and my love of the field with colleagues, in international partnerships and in education. And I’m happy to share it with Reha!’  

Hestia grant

Klein wrote a description of her current research and this appeared on the list of possible Hestia projects. Reha: ‘When I read the description, I became really enthusiastic and could see how my expertise could contribute to the research. So I got in touch with Anke.’ After a few phone calls, they decided that there was indeed a match and that they would submit a project proposal to NWO. And it worked: they were awarded a Hestia grant.

Positive psychology

Klein: ‘My main research is about the treatment of specific anxieties in children, such as fear of heights, injections or clowns. Unfortunately, the treatment isn’t always effective. Reha is a specialist in positive psychology, so our idea is to investigate whether methods and techniques from positive psychology can make the existing treatments more effective.’ As part of their research, Klein and Reha will study 80 children. In the treatment process, half of the children will receive instructions that will increase their self-efficacy and half of the children will not. This will enable them to compare the effect of positive psychology instructions on treatment outcome. 

Video calls with new colleagues

Starting a new job in a time of corona is strange: you can’t come to the University and meet your colleagues in person. But Reha isn’t fazed by that. ‘My first contact with Anke was via a video call, and we kept on with these calls for the project proposal, so I didn’t feel it was very different.’ He has noticed some differences between academic work here in the Netherlands and in his home country. ‘As there are a lot more universities in my home country, you can find a job quicker and it’s easier to become a professor. I think here in the Netherlands there’s more pressure to perform; back home, the quality of the journal you publish an article in is not as important as it is here.’

Valuable knowledge

Reha is happy he can at last start the research: ‘I can do what I was trained for, what I have a great passion for and what gives me energy.’ And Klein is very happy to have Reha in the team. ‘My field tends to focus on the negative side, which is hardly surprising as we’re dealing with children’s psychological problems . That makes Reha’s knowledge of positive psychology so valuable. And, apart from that, he’s just a really nice colleague!’

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