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Alumnus Jonathan works with Ukrainian refugees: ‘They still have a smile on their face’

When alumnus Jonathan Katzman started his master's programme in Russian and Eurasian Studies, he didn't foresee how useful those skills would be in the near future. Now, he manages a refugee centre for Ukrainians who have fled their war-torn country.

Jonathan Katzman
Jonathan Katzman

A year ago, the world looked very different from today's. Jonathan was wrapping up his master's and even had a potential job lined up. ‘I was in the process of attaining position at a Russian university,’ he tells. But when Russia invaded Ukraine, that dream fell apart. ‘Instead, I find myself working with the people on the other side of the conflict. So you can say that things have turned out very differently.’ 

Fulfilling work

He now provides support to around sixty Ukrainian refugees living at a converted music school. ‘My responsibility is inventorying needs and caring for their social welfare,’ Jonathan says. His ability to speak Russian plays a key role in providing support, because he finds that most Ukrainians can't speak English or Dutch. ‘So it's a great opportunity to be forced to speak the language,’ he jokes.

Although Jonathan had never envisioned working with refugees, he says the work is very fulfilling. ‘I especially like working with the children, because even though they have been through very difficult times, they still walk around with a smile on their face,’ he says. Yet, Jonathan hopes to be out of a job rather sooner than later. ‘For the sake of the Ukrainians, I hope they are able to return to their country soon.’ 

Cultural competencies

When that happens, he plans to return to his home country of the United States and land a job in government. ‘As a result of studying at Leiden University, I have acquired a large amount of cultural competencies, not only regarding Russian language and culture, but the Dutch as well,’ he says. ‘I would like to use my multifaceted knowledge to find a meaningful job within American political affairs. I am sure there will especially be a demand for specialists with knowledge of Russian culture and language.’

Figuring out interests

Despite the fact that some things didn't go according to plan, he looks back fondly on his days as a student. ‘I have a Dutch passport through my mother who is Dutch, so I came to Leiden to get back in touch with my roots. It's been a pleasure to learn about and experience the Dutch culture and language,’ Jonathan says. 

With his own student experience at the back of his mind, he urges current and upcoming students to really think about what makes them tick. ‘I spent a lot of time trying to find the thing I was actually interested in. The expectation for me was to attend university right after high school but I had no idea what really interested me at first,’ he tells. 'Besides pursuing my bachelor's degree in political science, I enjoyed taking advantage of the electives offered by Leiden University. I eventually settled on Russia as my area of interest. I enjoyed the small course sizes and the in-depth course offerings with great teachers like Matthew Frear.’ 

All in all, Jonathan is happy with how things turned out. ‘We find ourselves in a unique situation. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to take those electives and that I find myself in a position where I can do the work that I do today.’ 

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