Support to refugees, at-risk students and academics

The Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) is an actively involved university when it comes to human rights, academic freedom and societal commitment.

The VUB has a long history of welcoming refugees and encourages those with an academic background or academic ambition to make use of the various opportunities offered on campus. In 2015, with the large influx of migrants in the EU due to conflict in the Middle East and in the Horn of Africa, the VUB reacted developing a programme to support the integration of refugee students. This programme gives a fair chance to prospective students with a refugee background to start or continue their studies and build a better future for themselves, here in Belgium or back home when they return. 

Engaged since 2011 in the Scholars at Risk network, the VUB actively supports the protection of scholars who suffer intimidation and pressure through awarness-raising campaigns and by sheltering threatened academics. 

Khaola Al Rifai - Project Coordinator

Tahaney Kattash - Administrative Assistant


Revamped Student Refugee Programme

In response to the migratory influx in Belgium which reached a peak in 2015, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), set-up the Student Refugee Programme for students looking to continue or start their academic studies after being forced to flee their home country. With the start of the new academic year in September 2020, the programme will be revamped, to provide better support to those refugee students studying at VUB, and those who want to apply.

VUB wants to further facilitate access to higher education for refugee students by providing them with the necessary guidance and support before and during their studies.

The student refugee programme is designed to welcome refugee students with very diverse backgrounds who were admitted by VUB’s faculties, and still need additional support. The additional services the students will receive include:

Info sessions on VUB services: admission, E-tools, the education System, financial support, exams and regulations

  • Workshops on study skills
  • Monitoring sessions to follow up on their progress
  • Psychological support sessions (group and individual) led by an expert psychologist team
  • Cultural orientation sessions in collaboration with the Agentschap voor Integratie en Inburgering-Bon Brussel, the agency dealing with integration in Brussels.

This will be on top of the administrative support already provided to all refugee students, ranging from a first contact with prospective students to give general information and guidance, to guidance throughout the admission process, to maintaining an open-door policy to provide advice and support where and when needed throughout the students’ study progress.

The uniqueness of the student refugee programme lies in the principles behind it: the individual follow-up of students, taking into account the complexity of their situation, with diversity and openness at its core. During the 2019-2020 academic year, 104 refugee students applied and 36 enrolled. Most of them come from Syria, Palestine, Turkey and Iraq, and study in English-taught Master programmes, especially in Social Sciences & Solvay Business School, but also in Engineering and Languages and Humanities.

Interested? Check out our academic offering in English and in Dutch => Apply to study at the VUB

Scholars at Risk

The Vrije Universiteit Brussel is an actively involved university when it comes to human rights, academic freedom and societal commitment. Its founding principles clearly state its values and commitment to defend academic freedom. In 2011, the VUB joined the Scholars at Risk network (SAR) and thereby dedicated to work at protecting threatened scholars and promote academic freedom. We believe this is our role as a civil society actor in Belgium, in Europe and in the world.

Getting involved is a multi-layered engagement. It implies taking action both at department level (administrative support, guidance and academic supervision) and university leadership level (vision and finances). It implies providing shelter and hosting threatened scholars, raising awareness, publicly taking a stand to protect higher education values and academic freedom, participating to advocacy campaigns (signing petitions and letters of appeal), organising events and seminars on campus etc., all with the aim to protect the fundamental values of academic freedom and free inquiry.

VUB is also represented at conferences at Belgian, European and international level to represent and defect the actions towards protecting higher education values. Upcoming events are:

  • SAR Global Congress - 23 April 2018
  • EAIE Conference - September 2018.

UNISTAR project

UNISTAR stands for UNIversity STAff for Refugees and is an Erasmus+ strategic partnership project. VUB coordinates it as part of a consortium with Vilnius University (Lithuania), Alice Salomon Hochschule (Germany), Universidad Alcala de Henares (Spain), Hogeschool Utrecht (the Netherlands) and the UNHCR. Its objective is to support universities in their work with refugee students. The UNISTAR project’s aim is to offer an online course to train university staff in their work with student refugees, taking into account the specific psychosocial concerns and needs of the students. At the moment, the consortium is working on the development of the online learning platform, which ultimately should help train university staff across Europe.

The first phase of the project was completed in April. During the month of March 2021, 93 university staff (academics as well as management and administrative staff) from UNISTAR partner institutions tested the different modules in the course and gave feedback so the online platform could be further improved. Overall, this feedback proved to be very constructive and positive, and will be used to adjust the platform over the course of the summer of 2021.

The next step will be to make the course available for further testing at the start of the new academic year 2021-2022. A wider audience from several European universities will be invited to the project conference, which will mark the launch of the optimised version of the course, and will hopefully take place in person in Berlin. The date is yet to be confirmed

Khaola Al Rifai
Programme coordinator

Tahaney Kattash
Administrative assistant