Surviving HIV in the Netherlands

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Looking at Scott Alfaz, a bright and energetic young man from East Java who completed his LLM (Master of Laws) in Global Criminal Law at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands in 2018, you would probably have never guessed that he was living with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Despite his health status, Scott has proven that living with HIV does not have to be a constraint to success. In fact, it was actually what motivated him to become who he is now. Commemorating World Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) Day on December 1st, Indonesia Mengglobal Columnist, Dini Putri Saraswati shares Scott’s inspiring story of pursuing his study abroad while living with HIV.

 

Hi Scott! How are you doing?

Hi! I am good. I am currently residing in Jakarta and working on several projects, such as hayVee my start-up for HIV/AIDS counseling service, legal consultancies, and oh, during this pandemic I also bake some cakes at Aoi Cheesecake too.

 

Wow, interesting! Now, please tell me about what motivated you to study abroad?

I found out that I have HIV in early 2012 when I was studying at Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) Yogyakarta for my Bachelor’s Degree. It was quite difficult to accept the news, especially as I was very excited about my college life. I must admit that at first it made me feel unconfident. I was wondering if I could survive this disease alone as I could not reveal my health status to others, except to one or two close friends I trusted.

 

Then I realised that I must carry on. I wanted to prove that I am capable of doing what my friends are doing despite my struggle. Therefore, I set my goals high, I wanted to graduate on-time with a cum laude predicate. And I did it! It was the starting point where I wanted to achieve something bigger, studying abroad.

 

Scott in the Netherlands
Scott in the Netherlands – Source: S. Alfaz

 

How did you finally got accepted to the University of Groningen?

It was very tough, I must say. People Living with HIV (PLHIV) may not be easily granted a visa to study abroad. I also could not find any PLHIV from Indonesia who had managed to do so. I was disappointed for a while as I could not find the information I needed and I did not know where else to look.

 

In 2016, I started to look for countries which are PLHIV-friendly. I crossed the United States of America (USA) and New Zealand off my list because those countries have strict regulations in terms of receiving PLHIV to study. Afraid it would be resulted in the rejection of my application, I chose to apply to universities in Australia, the United Kingdom (UK), and the Netherlands instead. It went well Monash University, University of Melbourne, University of Sydney, Queen Mary University of London, University of Southampton, University of Sussex, Leiden University, and University of Groningen were among the universities to issue a Letter of Acceptance (LoA) to me.

 

I did not expect I would go this far  granted LoAs from many reputable universities from all over the world. But I had to decide, so I double checked the requirements of each country. Apparently, in order to apply for UK and Australia student visas, I had to undergo a medical examination and I did not want to take the risk. Therefore, the Netherlands came as my last resort. Given the fact that my LoA at Leiden University was conditional, I chose University of Groningen instead.

 

University of Groningen covered in snow
University of Groningen covered in snow – Source: S. Alfaz

 

My struggle did not stop there. The government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands put less concern on HIV/AIDS and were more aware to Tuberculosis (TB) instead. Therefore, in the Netherlands there was TB test every six months. I did not have TB, but HIV can be closely related to TB and it had made me feel uneasy whenever I underwent the medical evaluation for TB.

 

Canal cruising in Groningen during the Introduction Week for the Faculty of Law students
Canal cruising in Groningen during the Introduction Week for the Faculty of Law students – Source: S. Alfaz

 

Finding the right health insurance was quite a homework for me as most insurance policies for students would not cover HIV/AIDS. Meanwhile, presenting health insurance was mandatory to be able to reside in the Netherlands. After a long search, I finally found one that did not even need any declaration for particular medical conditions like mine.

 

Although I was insured, I still tried my best to keep my immune system strong as PLHIV are susceptible to be exposed to other infectious diseases. It is paramount to keep CD4 cells, the white blood cells to fight infections, in the normal range as low CD4 cells may lead to AIDS. In order to maintain the immune system, PLHIV must consume antiretroviral (ARV) medications according to the recommended dosing schedule, either once or twice daily. If necessary, consuming supplements or multivitamins is allowed. Eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly are also suggested to boost the immune system. As a person who likes to cook, I am used to cooking my own foods. It is healthier and tastier. I also enjoy staying active; I work out, run, and cycle on a daily basis. Besides, it is essential to have a safe sex lifestyle for PLHIV who are sexually active. Lastly, as a PLHIV, we have to manage stress and get support as well to increase our immune system. Other than that, I live my life like normal people.

 

Stay active and healthy!
Stay active and healthy! – Source: S. Alfaz

 

As a PLHIV, did you feel any different between Indonesia and the Netherlands in terms of healthcare access or social interaction?

I personally think that the healthcare system in the Netherlands was too well-organised that it confused me. Maybe it was also because I did not understand Dutch so I could not really access the healthcare. Moreover, I was too scared to open up when asked about my health status as I feared they would try to confirm it with my health insurance, my campus, my funding provider, or even my family. Thus, I decided to contact my doctor in Indonesia and asked a friend who would go to the Netherlands to bring my medications from my home country. It did not always run smoothly. Sometimes, my friend got randomly checked at the airport and was questioned by the immigration officers regarding my medicines. They were suspicious that it was illicit drugs. Since my medications were equipped with the legal prescription from my doctor, they were all safe.    

 

In the Netherlands, or anywhere, to be honest, I barely encountered any discriminatory behaviour. Maybe it was because I only selected few people I trust the most to share my health status. However, I sometimes come across other PLHIV who are being discriminated against even by their close relatives. I feel really bad to anyone who experiences discrimination. For me, being independent is the key to avoid being treated unfairly. I believe that by being self-sufficient, nobody would ever dare to discriminate me. When someone offends me, I do not want to think too much about it. I deserve to be happy, with or without being a PLHIV.

 

Scott, right, and his international friends
Scott, right, and his international friends – Source: S. Alfaz

 

Now you have successfully achieved your biggest dream, what is next?

I was thinking about living a normal life, not even thinking about coming out to the public. Maybe I will start a career, find a spouse who would accept me for who I am, and live a happy life. But then I realised that I am privileged enough to be given opportunity to get a higher degree even if I have to deal with HIV forever, while there are still a lot of PLHIV who think that their life is over not knowing their full potential.

 

Scott's graduation at the University of Groningen
Scott’s graduation at the University of Groningen – Source: S. Alfaz

 

I first started to open up my health status to the public through social media. The result was jaw-dropping, there were actually a lot of people who were inspired by my story. My direct messages (DMs) were full of people asking about how to pursue our dreams while we are a PLHIV, some were even close to committing suicide and found me as their saviour. I felt touched and I thought that it was my time to give back to my community.

 

I would like to help all of them, but I know I cannot do it alone. Therefore, I established hayVee, a digital platform where PLHIV share their experience and thoughts or even ask questions and have discussions about sexual problems and mental health. I wanted hayVee to be a safe space for PLHIV to support each other and access medication. I even collaborated with several doctors and psychologists to help them getting treated for free. Hopefully someday I would level up this movement by advocating the victims of sexual violence too.

 

hayVee
hayVee – Source: LinkedIn

 

What a benevolent act of you! Do you have any tips for PLHIV out there who actually want to continue their study abroad?

Dare to dream! There is this one beautiful quote from Andrea Hirata: “Bermimpilah maka Tuhan akan memeluk mimpi-mimpimu”. It means that if you are not sure about your dreams, do believe that God will catch the dreams for you. Try to write down your dreams in your notebook, mobile phone, or even wall as a reminder. After that, do some research on how to achieve your goals. What do you want to be? How to pursue it? Remember to do it one step at a time. Find the least you can do to start. For example, in order to be able to study abroad, you need to master the language first before applying the university. It does not have to be hard if you want to try. Good luck!

 

Scott's happy face on his graduation day at the University of Groningen
Scott’s happy face on his graduation day at the University of Groningen – Source: S. Alfaz

 

***

Scott Alfaz, or Scott, pursued his LLM in Global Criminal Law at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. As an HIV/AIDS influencer, he is also a founder of hayVee, a platform to provide information and health access for PLHIV. In his free time, he likes to write and travel. He also cooks. He loves cooking Asian and Western foods. Currently, he is focusing on baking as he established Aoi Cheesecake. He can be contacted on Instagram: @scotchandsoba__

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Dini is a Lecturer in International Relations at Universitas Pembangunan Nasional "Veteran" Jawa Timur and Universitas Islam Negeri Sunan Ampel Surabaya. She is also a Contributing Writer at Indonesia Expat. She graduated with a Master of Arts in International Relations and International Organisations from the University of Groningen in 2018. Prior to her previous study, she obtained a Bachelor of International Relations from Universitas Airlangga Surabaya. She is passionate about International Studies as her main focus is International Security and Development Studies. At the weekend, she can be found at home reading a pile of books or hitting the gym. She can be reached at dps.dini@gmail.com.

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