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The secret of Abdulaziz al Alami

Knowledge is power

13 March 2018

If you want to be a successful refugee in your new country, it is important that you know how you can succeed. Syrian refugee Abdulaziz Al Alami (1995) achieved a lot in the short time he’s been in The Netherlands. His secret? Know what you want and how you can get it. Know the rules and regulations of your new country. Know your rights and your duties. Know the language and the culture.

I’ve known Abdulaziz for a long time. The first time I met him, I was impressed by him. He’d only been in The Netherlands for a short time, but his Dutch was almost perfect. I asked him to volunteer for the non profit I worked for. He started working as a translator, and later on he started coaching newcomers. Now he’s in college, studying to become a social worker.

Q: Your Dutch is almost perfect. How did you do that?

“I love languages. It is easy for me to learn a new language. After leaving Syria I lived in Turkey for a while and learned Turkish quickly. When I came here, I wanted to learn the language as soon as possible, so I could get a job and go to school. It is hard to find your place if you can’t talk to people, if you don’t understand them.

After I arrived in The Netherlands, I lived in an asylum seekers center for a while. When you live there, you don’t have a lot of things to do. You need to wait for the Dutch government to assign you to a municipality. Once you live in the municipality, you can start at a government funded language school. I didn’t want to wait that long, so I spent my time wisely. Every day I watched movies on YouTube about the language. I repeated every word a million times, so I could pronounce it correctly.

There was a video called “The 1000 most important words in the Dutch language.” I watched it daily and soon knew enough Dutch to talk to the people in the center. I tried to speak as little Arabic and English as I could and spoke in Dutch all day.

When I moved to my assigned municipality, I didn’t go to a regular school where refugees go to school nine hours a week. Instead I went to college where I did a program that would get me on such a high level that I would be able to start an education in Dutch. The college was far away, I sat in the train for almost two hours a day. But it was worth it.”

Q: Did someone help you, or did you do it all by yourself?

“Not long after I arrived in The Netherlands, I met a nice Dutch girl on an app were you can make new friends. We’ve been together for two years now and she and her family have helped me a lot. Not just with the language, but also by changing my mindset. I also got help from an Iraqi refugee I met in the asylum center. He is the one that taught me how important is to have reliable sources for information.”


What is your plan? Do you want to study or do you want to get a job? Get informed on how you can achieve your goals. Do you need certain diplomas? Can the municipality help you? Is there another refugee in your area who has done the same? Ask how they achieved their goals. Go to schools, talk to employers. Make sure that you have the correct information.

Abdulaziz al Alami

Student Social Work

Q: Was your mindset positive or negative?

“Very negative. Trying to be a normal student when there is a horrible war going on in your country is challenging. I’ve had a lot of bad experiences. Living in the asylum center was also hard. The people in the center were negative, they believed none of us had a future here. So I kept to myself as much as I could.

My girlfriend is positive, but it was difficult for me to share that positivity. My friend in Syria advised me to learn from her and her family. Not just about the language and the culture, but also how the system in The Netherlands works and how I could be more positive. Her father was incredibly understanding. He told me “alright, so far, everything in your life has been awful. But from now on, things will get better.”

Q: Did it get better?

“Not at first. I had a lot of traumas from the war and was convinced that the world was a horrible place. I decided to give positivity a try and if it turned out that the world was indeed as bad as I thought, I would kill myself. I had suicidal thoughts for a long time. My friend in Syria helped me a lot. Suicide is a taboo in our culture, but he was relaxed about it, which made it easy for me to open up.

Even though my friend, girlfriend and her family helped me a lot, I wasn’t improving a lot. Going to school was hard, because I had nightmares almost every night. I was too tired to focus and I worried a lot. I had great plans to change my life, but my traumas were holding me back.”

Q: What did you do to deal with your traumas?

“In Syria there is a taboo on getting psychological help. Only crazy people go to a psychiatrist. If you feel bad, you need to rely on Allah. But I’ve always been interested in psychology and how the mind works. So I decided to get professional help. I wanted a Dutch psychologist, someone not familiar with the cultural taboos surrounding psychology. He diagnosed me with a mild form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Treatment was difficult. My girlfriend was supportive, in The Netherlands it is very normal to go to a psychologist. But I still struggled with my cultural upbringing… I wasn’t crazy, so why was I going to a psychologist? Letting go of a strong belief is difficult. But I forced myself to keep going to therapy, because the nightmares were too bad to deal with.

Therapy really helped me. I am more positive now, I have changed my mindset. I was convinced negativity was in my blood, in my genes. Where I come from, everybody was negative. But now I am positive and confident.”

Q: Do you consider yourself successful?

“I am on my way to success. I have set a couple of personal goals and achieved them all. But I’m still in school and have set new goals. I want to finish school and get a well paying job, I want to speak Dutch more fluently, I want to be able to stay in The Netherlands and build a life here. I am happy and I want to stay happy.

It will be hard work though. My negativity is a lot less, but it is still there. In therapy I have learned that I can control my thoughts. When a negative thought pops up, I don’t have to respond to it. I can replace it with something positive. As long as I keep focused on all the good in the world, on all the positivity, I know I will be successful.”

Q: What is your advice for people who are struggling now?

“They need to know two important things;

  1. Knowledge is power

What is your plan? Do you want to study or do you want to get a job? Get informed on how you can achieve your goals. Do you need certain diplomas? Can the municipality help you? Is there another refugee in your area who has done the same? Ask how they achieved their goals. Go to schools, talk to employers. Make sure that you have the correct information. In the asylum center I was told by another refugee that I wasn’t allowed to go to school. I didn’t know the rules. But my Iraqi friend helped me to gather the right information and in no time I was going to school.

Getting information about psychology has helped me deal with my traumas. I have learned a lot from my psychologist. My girlfriend and her family gave me reliable information about the rules and regulations in The Netherlands.

If you have knowledge, you can achieve anything you want. But make sure your information is correct.

  1. Surround yourself with positive role models

When everybody around you is negative, it is hard to stay positive. That is why it is important to surround yourself with positive role models.

There are enough successful refugees, who understand what you’re going through. Learn from them. Get inspired by all the positive stories. You can be successful too.”


What is your secret to success?