Student Maartje connects Afghan refugees to Nijmegen residents

08 Oct 2021

Nijmegen residents are helping the refugees in Heumensoord in all kind of ways. Maartje Knuiman, religious science student, is one of the volunteers running the helpdesk. ‘‘The Afghan evacuees are in great need of contacts.’

For the past month, hundreds of Afghan refugees have been staying in the forests of Heumensoord. Almost unnoticeable, as most of their lives takes place in white pavilions behind a gate. But there are all kinds of exchanges between Afghans and Nijmegen residents. Maartje Knuiman, a religious science student, is one of the volunteers coordinating the contacts. She works for the Yalla Foundation.

‘As soon as we knew that evacuees from Afghanistan were coming to Heumensoord, we set up a helpdesk’, she says. ‘We had 700 emails from Nijmegen residents wanting to help in no time.’

Some people were offering clothes and toys, others wanted to give Dutch lessons or help refugees getting acquainted with Nijmegen. Knuiman tries to match the right form of help with the right refugee. ‘The COA (Central Body for Asylum Seekers, ed.) and the Red Cross provide the basic necessities in Heumensoord’, she says. ‘It is important that we don’t get in the way of these organisations.’

Maartje Knuiman

The COA and the Red Cross are not providing bicycles, Yalla therefore started a call for bike donations in Nijmegen. Last week, the employees were able to deliver 200 bikes at the gate of Heumensoord. ‘The residents came up with a lottery-system to distribute bikes fairly among each other’, tells Knuiman.

Bikes are needed so the residents can get out and about. There is not much to do in the camp and people are trying to find activities and ways to get to know their environment.


The Yalla Foundation was established in 2015 when three thousand Syrians landed in Heumensoord. Resident Younes Younes set up a platform on Facebook from the campsite to connect refugees and Nijmegen residents. The same Younes – he meanwhile works and lives in Amsterdam – has now set up the helpdesk together with three other Nijmegen residents. Knuiman came to the organisation while doing research on religious experiences of Syrian refugees in the Netherlands. ‘I reached out to Younes because he knows a lot of Syrians. He said: I will help you, but then you also have to give something back.’ That was without a question for her and now, she is one of the coordinators of the helpdesk.

‘There is a need for people who can show them around the city’

According to her, many people from Nijmegen who were active in 2015 are now also reaching out. Back then, they helped the Syrians to get settled, now they want to help the Afghan refugees who are fleeing from the Taliban. Knuiman: ‘The Afghan evacuees are in great need of contacts. With people who can tell them how everything works in the Netherlands. With people who can show them around the city and grab a cup of coffee with them.’ And the number of offers of Dutch people who ‘want to do something’, according to her, is mind-blowing.

The helpdesk received an office space from the HAN (Hogeschool van Arnhem and Nijmegen, ed.). Many HAN students are volunteering themselves. Knuiman knows that many of the Afghans in Heumensoord are highly educated. ‘They were working in the embassy or as interpreters or doctors. Many of them speak English very well.’ And many of the evacuees are longing for ‘brain food’: they would like to follow courses or study.

Radboud University hopes to be able to open up a number of courses for Afghans soon. A website has already been launched under ru.nl/heumensoord. Refugees can register for free and enroll for courses. A really good initiative, according to Knuiman. ‘The refugees are eager to have something to do.’

In three months, the refugees are going to be gone from Heumensoord. It is only a temporary camp. The first Afghans came on the 31st of August, mid-September, refugees from other countries (from the camp in Ter Apel) joined as well. Last weeks, Afghans who first arrived at Legerplaats Harskamp joined their fellow countrymen at Heumensoord. There is place for a thousand people.

People from Nijmegen who would like to help the residents of Heumensoord can send a mail to helpdesk@yallafoundation.nl. Additionally, the initiative Bindkracht 10 (official partner of the municipality Nijmegen) is organizing activities and is looking for volunteers. Find them under: www.bindkracht10.nl

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