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  • David Dijkhuis

Let Their Stories Be Told!

‘We’re going to need more chairs!’ The World House was packed, as about a 100 people came out to hear the speakers during an intriguing night. Amnesty International and AISA are often publicizing the precarious situations of those who are in need, whose human rights are being violated. But every so often, we have the chance to hear from first-hand accounts, from those people who lived the stories that we share.

Sammy: "In the Netherlands, every young person is talking about a future. Where I come from, that's difficult."

The night started with the experiences of Sammy, a 20 year old refugee from Eritrea who has spent 3 years in the Netherlands. He left Eritrea because there is no freedom and no future in Eritrea. There is no freedom of expression, and all the opportunity there could be is eliminated by forced conscription. Those who live in Eritrea have no future, as they can barely afford schooling. Those who are not in school because they have to work to provide for themselves get conscripted. You may read these stories online. However, only when you hear them first-hand, you realize that these are human souls like you and me, not some abstraction, or simply an Eritrean. Sammy shared he had to work to provide for his family, of his very hard life, and how he could not keep it up. He had one chance to flee Europe, and through a treacherous route he finally arrived in the Netherlands. He considers his life in the Netherlands easy, despite the way in which we treat people who come from countries struck with poverty, totalitarianism, and violence. Here, he can share his story. Nobody in Eritrea would listen to him, because the sociopolitical climate in the country forces people to fend for themselves. Nobody is interested in your miserable situation as they experience the same misery. Still, Sammy thinks of Eritrea every day, of how he can help the people in Eritrea get the better future they deserve.​

Human rights affect people all over the world, and this night made that once again extremely clear. People from everywhere across the world are having their basic human rights denied, and are forced to fight for the rights that they on paper already have. Take the story of Asima, for example, who came to the Netherlands from Afghanistan when she was 19 years old. An overall lack of security, unrest, violence, and personal strategy were few of the many reasons for her to leave. As she came to Europe, she and her family had to pay a fortune on air tickets, forced to leave everything behind. When she arrived in the Netherlands, life didn’t become a cakewalk from that moment onward. The interviews with arriving migrants and refugees are not just interviews, they are more like criminal interrogations. From 9 AM to 5 PM, she would be interrogated. Rather than being treated with a sense of respect, they are treated as criminals before even getting a chance to start a new life. The presumption of innocence has been completely lost in the ever-increasing waves of xenophobia.

Asima (left) and Somia (right). "Every human being wants to belong to something or somewhere."

Often, we believe that we treat migrants humanely. The bureaucratic constraints that we impose, however, are deeply frustrating. As Somia, who came from Afghanistan, pointed out, humans want to belong. The system that we have in place now does not allow people who come here to obtain a sense of belonging. There is an immense amount of procedure, which almost always goes alongside enormous hardships as immigrants try to make it work for themselves while they wait. They live in camps and constantly get moved around the country. They can’t make friends, they can’t belong. This can be an incredibly traumatic experience for migrants, and even if they want to contribute to the Dutch society by working, they often can’t. They need a permit, which can take years before it is granted to them. It takes a very strong person to endure all the bureaucratic constraints that western society imposes upon them, simply for being here.

Susan: "If you have a number or a passport, you're somebody. But if you don't have it, it's like you're nobody."

‘Many don’t know what the real situation is’ stated Susan of We Are Here, a group of refugees who get no support from the Dutch government. The movement started off upon the realization of what actually happens in terms of how migrants are treated in the Netherlands. In the west, there is a powerful ‘it can’t happen here’ discourse. We believe that we are not barbaric, that surely we don’t engage in sustained cruelty ourselves? Sadly, the truth is less idyllic. The appropriated moral high ground can’t be further from the truth. People are forced to squat in garages, and the little support that some migrants get is extremely marginal. Many are resorted to squatting. This is not a choice; they have no support. In the media, there is often selective coverage of squatting refugees, who trash buildings. What we do not see is the precarity that these people are in, what caused them to squat, et cetera. While we constantly worry about the manifestations of our treatment, we barely ever question ourselves and the system we have created that feeds the situations that we see. Migrants are consistently forced to resort to their own resources, which they neither have nor are able to acquire. They rely on supportive lawyers, institutions like churches and mosques, and connected to Dutch teachers, in order to even get a shot at making it work in the Netherlands. It is hardly surprising that given the way refugees are treated, that they lose faith in the Dutch authorities. People don’t believe in justice anymore, as they are caught between anti-immigrant, xenophobic rhetoric and empty promises. People still sleep in the streets, they are nobodies to the government. We should instead of only worrying about the consequences we witness, question the system that provides these problems. Squatting is never a choice, it is a necessity in the face of abandonment.

Abdulrazik: "When you're young, you don't get any documents. Maybe when you're middle-aged, when you've grown old. Because then you don't have any opportunities, you have no school, you have no dreams anymore."

We are not dealing with some abstraction, but with very real people. People like you and me, who want to get their lives on track but are without any means to advance themselves. No story made that clearer than the one shared by Abdulrazik of his friend, Ali. Both Abdulrazik and Ali came from Sudan, without papers. They had nothing to eat, nowhere to stay, and nobody to know. They had no chance to participate in society. Ali became sick three months ago. He had no documents, no chance to get the medicine he needed, and he passed away. Can we even call ourselves a ‘welfare state’ when these stories transpire here?

Each refugee has a horrible story. They have dreams to get a better life, a new life, where they finally get a chance. The system you seek to become productive in, rejects you. You have nothing. Imagine that you have nothing, and that you get sick. Imagine that you fall ill. Then still, you will be supported in one way or another. But not if you are rejected by the support structure simply because of where you were born. There are many people who face this, who won’t be incorporated for many years, who dream of opportunities yet are denied a chance. What kind of society have we produced that those willing to contribute are denied the slightest slither of an opportunity? Aren’t we in essence all the same, with all an equal chance to life and success? These are issues we are facing now, and our story night has once again made clear that these are the realities for so many people. In the words of Senator Bernie Sanders;

‘If you have health insurance, I’m asking you to fight for those who don’t. If you’re native-born, I’m asking you to fight for the undocumented. [And] if you can afford an education, I’m asking you to fight for those who can’t.’

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