Changing the Refugee Dialogue: From Problem to Progress

UTRECHT – Saskia Harkema is the founder of Faces of Change, through which she applies a personal approach to coaching refugees in establishing their entrepreneurship in new countries. The goal is to help them through the often complicated institutional process of residing in the Netherlands.

After having poured tea in her home in Utrecht, Saskia sits down next to Ali Taifour. Ali is a refugee architect and theatre artist who was forced to travel through many countries before ending up in the Netherlands.

In most countries where displaced people end up, they have to deal with complicated asylum systems. Ali runs us through some of his experiences with COA (the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers) in the Netherlands. The sentence ‘you have to wait’ has been characteristic for Ali’s experience with the Dutch refugee institutions, whether he asked for updates on his status or simply for a pencil and paper to draw with. (

Saskia explains her realisation that she could use her ability as an academic to encourage and help refugees. This led to the combined efforts of five organisations to kick off Faces of Change.

The foundation focuses on education, training, and coaching people, all the while strongly emphasising the importance of enterprise. From visits to refugee camps in different countries, Saskia found a large number of people to be involved in impressively set up business ventures and initiatives, and she wants to ‘use this to aid and educate displaced people in their different countries.’

Faces of Change has a web-documentary project running called Diary of Two Activists. This is an interactive media project on the developing friendship between Saskia and the young Syrian activist Abdel Qader, who had to claim asylum in the Netherlands. Their personal experiences are told through video diaries.

Ali and Saskia state that their project’s goal is to ‘start a dialogue to humanise refugees.’ They are in Europe often described as a ‘problem’ in times of ‘the refugee crisis,’ and this view is reinforced by asylum procedures. The trailer can be found here. (

Saskia believes a personal approach to helping displaced people is necessary, as many have described to her the impersonality of refugee institutions. As they do not yet know the customs and language of the country they are in, many refugees are often simply told to ‘come back tomorrow.’ Certainly in the Netherlands, it appears that too often people are reduced to numbers.


While casually pouring tea, Saskia expresses her concern that in the large machine that is the grouping of institutions in place, this impersonal tendency leads to situations that are bizarre when you look at them from an outside perspective. She uses the example of accompanying an Iraqi woman to hospital for dialysis, where Saskia had to personally speak to doctors before they were willing to help her out the same day.

Both Ali and Saskia talked about their experiences with the current way of dealing with refugees, their views on how to improve on this, and the way Faces of Change is doing so. These interviews are to be found here in the next few days.

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