Two Sides of the Same Coin
The recent exodus of Ukrainian refugees is not an unfamiliar sight in the European continent. Ever since the 2015 European migrant crisis, there has been an influx of refugees settling in Europe. Three former refugees from Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East take us through their stories of leaving behind their homes as they reflect upon the familiarity of the Ukrainian refugee crisis.
In this fragment, you hear Mo Hersi, a 37-year-old comedian and public figure from Ethiopia. Mo was only 3 years old when he and his family fled in 1988 from the violence in their home country amidst the Ethiopian Civil War.
We meet him in the library in Almere where he regularly performs his stand-up, and he talks us through his journey to the Netherlands. Although he was just a toddler when he arrived in the Netherlands, he remembers in great detail how his family travelled to Saudi Arabia before they made the trek to Europe. Leaving Saudi Arabia, Mo and his family arrived in Paris after which they travelled to Brussels by train before finally seeking asylum in the Netherlands.
‘We were at the refugee camp in Slagharen, in the East of the Netherlands’ Mo tells us. ‘It’s right across from an amusement park. An amusement park for ponies, I don’t know who decided to build a refugee centre across from a pony park he adds.
The pony park resembles a stark difference between the life Mo lived as a young refugee as opposed to his peers. He recounts how his mother would wake him up at 7 am on Fridays to make their way to the Slagharen town hall. Every week the refugees in Slagharen had to get a stamp, to prove that they hadn’t left the centre without permission. The stakes for getting the stamp were high, refugees who missed the timeframe on Fridays risked not having food for their families the following week.
This new world Mo lived in was vastly different than the life the civil war had so forcefully taken from him and his family. His father used to work for a diplomat in Ethiopia, so his family lived a very comfortable life pre-civil war. It is something not a lot of people expect to hear from a refugee.
It is the misconception that western people often have about refugees that is currently being challenged by the Ukrainian refugee crisis. TRT World published a video detailing the obtuse way in which various Western news reports have reported on the war in Ukraine. In the clip, CBS Reporter Charlie D’Agata is seen saying that, unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, Ukraine is a ‘relatively civilized, relatively European’ nation. D’Agata has since apologized for his statement.
Words like those uttered by D’Agata hurt. Especially to other non-Ukrainian refugees whose experience in the Dutch refugee system is vastly different from the Ukrainian refugees.
We speak with Somia who is a 22-year-old student in the Hague where she studies European Studies. She was 17 years old when she fled Afghanistan with her family. As we sit down with her, she tells us how difficult it has been for her to restart her life upon arrival in the Netherlands. Although she is thankful for the things she has gained in the Netherlands such as ensurance of women’s rights and independence, the long and frustrating process still leaves a bitter aftertaste in her mouth.
Back in May, institutions of higher education in the Netherlands send a joint letter to the Minister of Education urging the cabinet to ease the financial burdens for Ukrainian students seeking refuge in the Netherlands so they can continue their studies as soon as possible. Somia has also seen this news come by as she has followed the developments of the Ukrainian crisis closely due to the nature of her studies.
‘It makes me angry, to be honest’ Somia tells us. ‘Because when I first came here, I also wanted to start, I was 17 and I wanted to finish high school, and start my studies. I could have been finishing my masters by now.’ She adds. It saddens her she did not get this chance. Somia tells us how she used to bug organizations every day to help her apply for scholarships. And although she is happy with her studies right now, she can’t help but feel like the last 5 years have been wasted years.
Although she does not begrudge the Ukrainian refugees for the help they are getting from the Dutch society, Somia does find it difficult to not see the Dutch eagerness to help as hypocritical.
Somia is not alone in her feelings of being treated unfairly; being discriminated against. Mo mentions this double-edged sword as well. As a former refugee, of course, he feels glad that the Ukrainian refugees are getting the help they need, but he also can’t help but be frustrated with the discrimination refugees of colour face trying to flee out of the war-torn country.
In the long run, the complexity that is the Dutch refugee system might be what will cause difficulties for Ukrainian refugees in the Netherlands in the same way it has caused difficulties for other non-Ukrainian refugees in the past. Someone who knows as no other what it is like to be at the whim of the Dutch refugee system and its uncertainties is Monjid. We meet him online as he squeezes us into his busy schedule finishing his thesis.
Monjid is a 33-year-old student in International Studies, specializing in Middle-Eastern Studies, and has been residing in the Netherlands for 6 and a half years following his departure from Iraq. A few months ago he was finally appointed his own permanent accommodation in the Netherlands but getting to this point has been nothing short of rough.
It was midnight when Monjid fled his country, leaving behind his home and his family. ‘I didn’t know when I crossed the sea if I would be successful or not; if I will manage to cross the sea or not. If I will die or not” he tells us. He can talk about it now that he is safe and well but at the time of his voyage these uncertainties were the only thing on his mind.
Luckily, Monjid survived crossing the sea, however, the difficulties didn’t stop there. After he reported himself to the police the Dutch Immigration Service confiscated all his documents and for the next few months, he was thrown in limbo moving from one refugee centre to another as he was moved across the country.
After a while he was appointed a temporary accommodation; a small room in a shared house. In this new accommodation, however, Monjid felt unsafe – for personal safety reasons we were requested to not disclose further information about this – and requested to move somewhere else. The unfortunate encounter he had with the municipality official who was in charge of his case left him homeless with no health insurance and no address. Even though we speak to him online, we hear the frustration in his voice.
Monjid was lucky to find a wealthy couple who was willing to host him after being left to fend for himself for over a year. And this concept of luck is what is wrong with the Dutch refugee system according to Monjid. ‘There is a system for everything in the Netherlands but when it comes to asylum or refugees there is no system. ‘You are either lucky or you are not’ he tells us.
Mo recognizes the struggles Monjid tells us about. Aside from his own experiences as a refugee, as well as an ambassador for VluchtelingenWerk Nederland – an organization that watches over the interests of refugees – Mo has firsthand experience in the complex processes refugee organizations have to go through to to help asylum seekers get refugee status in the Netherlands. He also worries that the eagerness of the Dutch people to care for the Ukrainian refugees may only be short-lived, after which they will be subjected to the whimsical nature of the Dutch refugee system like everyone else.
Mo’s predictions seem to be spot on. As early as March, RTL Nieuws published a story reporting on desperate guest families coming back on their decisions to house Ukrainian refugees.