According to PhD student Rik Huizinga, the war in Ukraine is a good example of how the Netherlands can also organize the reception of refugees: Dutch citizens open their houses and the government makes everything possible; work, education, sports lessons, a bank account. Not every refugee received such a warm reception.
Huizinga, trained as a cultural geographer, saw that the arrival and continued presence of Syrian refugees in 2015 led to strong political and social discussions. “There was a negative image in society of Syrian refugees, especially of the men. They would like to pack ‘our women’ and convert Dutch people to Islam.” Huizinga, who was a volunteer at Humanitas in Groningen at the time, got a completely different picture of Syrians. “I saw young guests who were afraid had to flee. The men tried to integrate with all their might, but were not given the opportunity to do so.” It touched him and he decided to write his dissertation on the integration of Syrian men in the Netherlands. He obtained his doctorate in mid-April.
You use a striking method for your research: walking interviews. What does that mean?
“I wanted to know how Syrian male refugees developed feelings of home and belonging in an environment unfamiliar to them. Hiking interviews are a relatively new scientific method. You walk with your test subject through a pleasant or not pleasant environment for them: you observe that environment and you talk about it to find out what someone experiences as pleasant or not.
“By walking I saw the influence the environment has on the feeling of home that Syrian refugees experience.” One of the boys took him to a foreign supermarket. “He associated the place with home: he could buy products he recognised, speak Arabic and was greeted by the supermarket employee with ‘hello brother’. On the street he said he felt less at home because people avoided him.”
They also get comments about their beard, eyes, clothing and language
Is that what you mean by discrimination and exclusion?
“Yes, I saw a lot of micro-aggression. Some sort of everyday forms of derogatory or hostile behavior. They may seem harmless to the sender, but together they accumulate in a greater sense that you don’t belong. Syrian men experience that people on the train do not want to sit next to them and that municipal officials do not take their university papers seriously. They also receive comments about their beard, eyes, clothing and language.
“Certain places during the walk brought up memories of unwanted or aggressive behaviour. Such an experience with micro-aggression was then regularly the reason for participants to share multiple experiences.”
Why is this group approached this way?
“You often see that people establish their own identity by saying what it is not. Anything that differs – language, skin color, religion – is seen as different and often intimidating in that process. This causes incorrect imaging. For example, it was assumed that the Syrians are all Islamic, while they are a very diverse group of people.
In the Netherlands, those certainties suddenly disappear and there are different expectations about masculinity
“The fact that a Syrian man goes to a supermarket where he can speak Arabic and see products from home does not mean that he does not want to drink a cup of tea with his Dutch neighbor. One does not exclude the other. It doesn’t have to get in the way of the integration process and can even help. Having to talk in a different language every day and getting to know new customs is very tiring. Those moments of recognition provide the opportunity to rest for a while and then take new steps to connect with other groups.”
In your research you also explicitly focus on male identity. Why does that play such a big role?
“A regularly recurring pattern in the survey was a sense of status loss among Syrian male refugees after they fled Syria and tried to take up their lives in the Netherlands. In Syria before the civil war, many men had already had to go abroad for their studies or worked in one of the neighboring countries to provide for their families. They therefore place great value on their degrees and professional careers, and the self-attributed qualities that made them successful.
“In the Netherlands, those certainties suddenly disappear and there are different expectations regarding masculinity. For example, the Dutch man has an active role in the household much more often. The accepted forms of male behaviour, but also generally desirable behavior in a broader sense, are hardly discussed in the integration process. Refugees learn about the Dutch language and its customs, but if someone does not know how to behave, it is difficult to integrate into an unfamiliar society. More attention should be paid to that.”
With the arrival of the Ukrainian refugees you now see that things can be different
How do you do that?
“I think in general terms we should pay more attention to the person behind the refugee and the different roles they have. The stories and images of refugees that we receive through the media are strongly focused on victimization and vulnerability. On the one hand, this is important so that people are mistaken for ‘real’ or ‘worthy’ refugees. But because of this, the hint of dependence is persistent, while they want to withdraw from it. Many want to participate actively in society, but there is just too little room for initiative and self-development within the integration program.”
How could you practically shape that?
“By giving people the opportunity to organize their own lives again. Now you see refugees ending up in asylum seekers’ centers, far away from civilization. They are not allowed to work there, learn the language and receive no education. In an asylum seekers center that I have visited myself, they were not even allowed to cook because they ‘may not be able to handle gas’. In this way you deprive refugees of the opportunity to develop themselves, while they often very much want this.
“With the arrival of the Ukrainian refugees, you now see that things can be done differently. They are allowed to work, play sports and go to school. In this way they are actively included in Dutch society. The willingness to change rules and procedures is greater for Ukrainians now than for Syrian refugees then. That should be possible for all refugees, so that everyone has the opportunity to lead a meaningful life.”