The People Behind the Paperwork

As PM Mark Rutte’s cabinet continues to mull over solutions to the refugee crisis, an increasing number of migrants are entering the Netherlands, with an estimated 75,000 refugees arriving by the end of 2023. 
The refugee centers around the country are not equipped to deal with the crisis, which has resulted in an effort to open temporary locations to supplement the 78 existing locations. The Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service (IND) is also struggling to process the applications. “There aren’t enough employees working for [the IND] to deal with the number of people coming into the Netherlands,” said Maureen Zweistra, team leader in Zoetermeer at VluchtelingenWerk Nederland (VWN), an organization providing legal aid to refugees. 
In 2023, the entire asylum process takes up to 21 months. “This means that someone can be in a refugee center for nearly two years before they get a decision from the IND,” explained Maureen. The lengthy application process is a source of frustration for many refugees and aid organizations like VWN. 
Ahmad Al Alaei, team leader at the emergency refugee center in Gouda, explained that while working at VWN is extremely rewarding, the refugee crisis makes it challenging, “it is very difficult sometimes to have these conversations with asylum seekers and tell them, look, I can’t promise you anything right now.” Ahmed’s firsthand experience with his own family’s background as refugees allows him to understand the challenges faced by individuals seeking refuge.
The common misconception is that refugees are lazy and don’t want to invest in Dutch culture. In reality, refugees spend a significant amount of time in refugee centers without the ability to work. This situation, created by the system and not the people, prevents the refugees’ integration into Dutch society.

The gates to enter the refugee center in Zoetermeer, a converted prison.

Due to the long processing time, refugees await the IND’s decision in the refugee centers for up to two years, where they are not allowed to work. “There are always people who live [in the refugee center] coming to my office hours to ask if they can do voluntary work for me, but they’re not allowed to,” said Maureen. 
As refugees are reduced to numbers and paperwork by Dutch bureaucracy and media organizations, it is important to humanize the individuals entering the country in search of a better life. To begin to understand the lives of refugees, we spoke to four refugees living in a refugee center in Wassenaar, currently working as translators for VWN. 

Explore the Four Journeys

Step into their shoes and navigate through our interactive map by following the color-coded lines and points that represent each unique journey. Begin your adventure by clicking on the ‘house symbol’. As you delve deeper into their journeys, you will gain a deeper understanding of their resilience and courage in hopes of finding safer futures.

Moustafa - Syria

As we sat down with Moustafa, the resilient young man who had fled war-torn Syria, a deeply profound story unraveled before us, revealing the struggles he had endured. Between 2010 and 2015, Moustafa faced the harshest period of his life. 
Living in Aleppo meant living in constant uncertainty, never knowing if “each day would be my last”. Moustafa resided in a dangerous zone between Al Nusra Front and the government forces. His once peaceful neighborhood had transformed into a battleground for these opposing militant groups, subjecting him and many others to relentless violence and a sense of hopelessness.
The darkness of night was shattered by the deafening sounds of explosions, accompanied by the screams of terrified people, preventing any chance of sleep from 3 am until 8 am. While nights were filled with terror, Moustafa tried to fill his mornings with optimism. 

أُعِيذُكُمَا بِكَلِمَاتِ اللَّهِ التَّامَّاتِ مِنْ كُلِّ شَيْطَانٍ وَهَامَّةٍ وَمِنْ كُلِّ عَيْنٍ لامَّةٍ

The prayer that Moustafa’s parents would recite each day to ensure his safety during his long journey from Syria to the Netherlands 

He would start his day indulging in a cup of coffee, accompanied by the comforting melodies of his favorite singer Fayrouz, momentarily escaping the harsh reality of living in Aleppo. Then, Moustafa would make his way to the university, driven by his passion for becoming a biomedical engineer.
However, as Moustafa strolled through the streets of Aleppo, the sight of destroyed homes and lives would quickly bring him back to reality. The aftermath of the overnight destructions served as a constant reminder of the challenges the people of Aleppo faced on a daily basis. With each step Moustafa took, he became closer to overcoming those challenges, building a brighter future.
Despite the devastation in war-torn Syria, Moustafa remained determined to pursue education and build a better future for himself and his family. By choosing to stay in his homeland, Moustafa not only achieved his goal of earning a Bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering but also earned an honorary certificate for his exceptional graduation project.

Mazen - Yemen

As Mazen sat in his cell during nine months of solitary confinement, he contemplated leaving Yemen. Soon after being captured and tortured by a militia group for his involvement in an opposing political party, his brother was murdered. It was then that the decision was made. Not by Mazen, but by his mother.
She insisted that I flee from Yemen. I mean, I couldn’t, I had a lot to lose. My friends, my family, my whole life. Everything is in Yemen, in Sana’a, and leaving that behind…I’m still bleeding from that loss.”  
It took Mazen eight years to reach the Netherlands, spending years in Jordan, Egypt, and Russia. He was finally able to cross into the EU to claim asylum at the Belorussian-Polish border, where he encountered border control agents blocking his path.  
Listen to Mazen’s Story:
Mazen holds a scarf from the organization that saved his life: No Borders.

Franklin - Nigeria

Born and raised in the indigenous Nigerian city of Igboland, Franklin had developed a strong connection to the land that had been his home for his entire life.
In July 2022, the vicious actions of terrorists stripped away this sense of belonging from Franklin and countless others, tearing their communities apart; homes, farms, and lives were mercilessly destroyed.
Franklin’s life was shattered when he lost his older brother and father. The videos capturing their lives being taken away still haunt Franklin to this day. The simple act of sleeping seems impossible to him. 
Franklin was forced to flee his beloved home country, which he now describes as “a mess”, and seek refuge in The Netherlands. This was the first time he had ever left his country, searching for a better, safer life.
Fleeing Nigeria not only meant leaving behind his community but also forever losing contact with the few remaining individuals in his family. The distance that now separates them serves as a constant reminder to Franklin of the price he was forced to pay in search of the basic human right to safety.

Saadou - Iraq

Despite having a mechanical engineering degree, being part of the Yazidi community – a persecuted ethnoreligious group in Iraq – meant Saadou could not find a job due to unrelenting religious discrimination. “There is nothing to support me, nothing to protect protect me from people who want to hurt us,” he explained. As a consequence, he was forced to work with what he could find – ranging from taxi driver to a auto technician. 
When the terrorist group ISIS attacked his town, he fled to find a safer home for his growing family. “When you live in a country for 30 years, you have had your childhood there, all of your memories your friends. Good memories surround you wherever you go. You take this happiness away when you emigrate. It’s not like traveling, it means going to an unknown destination forever.”

The name of the bracelet given by Saddou’s mother in Saadou’s handwriting.

Saadou’s 54 day journey consisted of walking, swimming, taking boats to cross dangerous borders. Whenever he needed encouragement to continue his journey, he would look to he bracelet his mom gifted him. The “Thread of Reliance on God” was made in the Lalish Temple, the spiritual center of the Yazidi religion, and brings safety to the wearer while traveling.  

A Symbol of Loss

Passports, originally designed to facilitate international travel, are constant reminders of loss for Mazen, Saadou, Moustafa, and Franklin. After sitting with all four men, we noticed one recurring theme: the insignificance of their passports. 
The burden of carrying Yemeni and Iraqi passports has forced Mazen and Saadou, respectively, to illegally cross borders in search of security. Their long journeys were filled with constant dangers as they walked, hiked, and even swam through harsh weather conditions desperately seeking a place where they could truly feel safe.
Due to his Syrian passport, Moustafa faced numerous challenges in obtaining a residency permit in Saudi Arabia, which limited his job opportunities. He was even threatened with deportation due to Saudization policies. Moustafa was encouraged by his friend to consider going to The Netherlands. Although he knew the slim chances of obtaining a Schengen visa as a Syrian citizen, Moustafa decided to apply for it. Unexpectedly, his application was approved and he received the visa through Greece.
Despite managing to escape their war-torn homelands, some refugees encounter yet another challenge. Franklin shared his experience with detainment in Schiphol Airport due to his Nigerian Passport.

Entering the Netherlands

After eight long years, Mazen began the final leg of his journey from Germany to the Netherlands. After while, he noticed that the architecture changed and he knew he had crossed into the Netherlands. Despite having never visited, Mazen always had a special place in his heart for the Dutch: “I knew that this is my place, I’ve known it for a long time. I was finally in the right place, and I cried because I couldn’t believe it!”

Listen to Mazen’s Story: 

The asylum seeking process is an immensely difficult journey even once the final destination is reached. Saadou arrived at Ter Appel, the main processing center for recent arrivals, and found no place to sleep. He had to sleep outside for a week until his paperwork was processed. He then moved to various different refugee centers to await the decision of his asylum application. 
“Without papers, without documents, without a permit, you are not identified. Your life doesn’t have any meaning. You will not be able to work. Not able to have anything, not study. So there is no meaning of your stay here. You barely even exist,” said Saadou as he explained what it felt like to wait for his residence permit.
Listen to Saadou’s Story:

Looking Forward

Their dreams for the future are intertwined in one fundamental way: they need to receive their documents to officially become citizens. Once they receive their asylum decisions from the IND, Moustafa wants to learn Dutch, continue his degree’s specialization and hopes to build a family one day. Saadou wishes to hold his family in his arms and find a job doing  what he loves. Mazen looks forward to opening his business and creating a home. Francis wants to learn Dutch and build a family.   
Beyond the lengthy paperwork that the asylum process demands, the stories refugees have to tell invite us to be more welcoming and empathize with their past, understand their present and advocate for the best of their futures.