“Two minutes,” Osama Isaac says almost apologetically to the reporter and photographer. At De Hoop School, the building on Kruisweg where refugees staying in Beijneshal receive language lessons, a Kahoot! quiz has just started with questions about stroopwafels, clogs and Sinterklaas songs.
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Quizmaster Osama Isaac asks the questions in Arabic and displays the possible answers in three different languages (Arabic, English and Dutch) on a large screen. The ten participants, almost all teenagers, are completely engrossed in the game. After a question about November 11, they spontaneously started a song: ‘Sinter, Sinter Maarten, the cows have tails’.
After the quiz, the lesson is over. Osama Isaac says hello to the youth. “You see them grow,” he says proudly. “The beginning in the Netherlands was difficult for everyone. They have been in several camps, they are afraid. You see the fear disappear. In the beginning they knew nothing about the Dutch language and culture and now look. Some children have even gone on to mainstream education.”
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Nevertheless, uncertainty continues to trump the refugees from Beijneshal. At the time of the interview, it had just become known that the group of around fifty people of twelve different nationalities will be leaving the sports hall before Christmas. Some will go to the housing units in Ikea in Haarlem, others will be housed elsewhere in the country.
It feels like a family falling apart, says Isaac. The fact that he himself has just been allocated a home in Schalkwijk gives him mixed feelings. “I am happy that I can personally take the next step in the integration process, but I would not have minded staying longer in Beijneshal. It feels like one big family.”
Even as the refugees blow out, Isaac continues to teach the sufferers. “On the refugee boat in IJmuiden and in Ikea,” he sums up. Acquainting refugees with the Dutch language and culture using a self-developed educational program is where his passion lies. “Teaching these young people the alphabet makes me happier than teaching graduate students,” says the former professor of computer science at Lincoln University College in Malaysia.
When he started learning the Dutch language himself, he found the lessons boring. It could be better, he thought. So he himself developed a teaching program where all facets of the Netherlands are discussed in a playful and accessible way: language, culture, history, but also achievements that are sensitive in other cultures.
“I also talk about freedom of expression, diversity and homosexuality. Of course, this sometimes leads to tensions and reactions. It is a ‘clash of values’: many refugees come from a country where religion and politics are intertwined. But I think that if you choose to come to this country, you must follow the rules that apply here. Talking about it is a first step towards understanding and acceptance, I think.”
His progressive views got him into trouble both in his native Yemen and Malaysia. From the safe Netherlands, he is doing everything in his power to initiate dialogue in these strict Islamic countries as well. He regularly launches videos on his platform Soulera.org, where he tries to highlight the importance of technology and science in Arabic.
“It’s primarily a plea for rationalism,” he says. “Many countries are governed on the basis of religion. By a corrupt government that makes decisions based on emotion or because their predecessors have always done it that way. Science and technology are hardly used. I would like to show that a country can also be governed differently. That you can make decisions based on scientific research, instead of a gut feeling.”
Moving into your own home is an important step for Osama Isaac. One day he wants to work at a university again, and that requires a fixed home address. But he doesn’t want to give up language lessons, no matter what. Isaac thinks being nominated for Person of the Year is ‘too much honour’. “This nomination is for all refugees in Beijneshal.”