Integration of Refugees: Past & Present

An insight into the experiences of a Syrian-Lebanese refugee and their integration into Western society twenty years ago, in comparison to current ideas on integration.

With the refugee-integration debate reaching new heights, I have found myself trying to explain what my childhood was like to a lot of people. I went to school with a lot of refugees from the local refugee centre, and I thought it was nice. I got to eat a lot of interesting food, learn about different cultures and languages, and most of all, this happened without me even noticing. I was just playing with my classmates, and there was nothing strange about it. Why should there be.

It did get me thinking: this is my perspective. I went home, to our two-bedroom house, and had a sandwich with cheese, and wondered whether I should become an astronomer or an architect. Because we were all only children, we did not debate the realities of tolerance in modern society. Now, 20 years later, I am curious what my classmates remember. How did they see things? I tried to track down a few of them. Of course, 20 years ago we had no cell-phones, and we had no Facebook, so this proved difficult. In the end, I found three, and only properly talked to one.

They loved Syria, but they left because of family problems … war is not the only reason people leave places.

Her dad`s Lebanese, her mum`s Syrian, and they met while they were at Uni. They loved Syria, but they left because of family problems, and hoped for a better future. They did not leave because of war, and war is not the only reason people leave places. They had some relatives living in Europe, and picked a country accordingly. It is a very scary thing to move away from everything you know and love, so they choose to come to a place where at least they knew someone.

Being an asylum seeker is one of the most difficult things someone can go through. They kept having to adjust to different environments, while constantly dealing with homesickness. Of course there was also my classmate, only about 3 years old at the time. She did not understand; if things were so hard, why could they not just go back? It is difficult for a 3 year old to realise why going through all that is necessary. There has to be a very good reason you want to put your family through such stress. At the time, she thought it was an adventure. In the refugee centres most people did not speak the same language. However, when you are 3, that is OK; you make friends anyway.

For many years they lived in a hotel-turned-refugee centre on the beach. Every family had a single person room which they shared. Sometimes the families were four people, sometimes six. While it is nice if you want to visit the beach for a weekend, this is not comfortable permanent living space, to say the least. People were removed from everyday life. They were not allowed to work, they had no official status. Imagine what it is like to be reduced to that. Especially for her parents, who were university educated, this was hard to deal with. They tried to work on their own projects, and found odd jobs they could do for cash. Of course this means there is a lot more tension at home, than for a regular family down in the village. People are frustrated, they argue; all within four walls.

It was nice to grow up with kids from so many different cultures. We did not even think about tolerance and society at the time. We just played together.

However, the children from the refugee centre all went to the local school together. Because there were so many foreign children in the school, there were very few issues. This is why I wanted to talk to my classmate. I always thought there were no issues. No racism, no discrimination. But that is nice to say, 15-20 years later, for a local girl with no cultural problems to speak of. I was glad to hear this was not my happy-memory imagination.

The bullies smeared dog faeces on their walls … they were called names, like ‘dirty Turks’.

Then, she moved to a different village, and things changed. This village was smaller, and did not have (many) foreign inhabitants. She said she could think of a lot of examples, but just to name a few: her sister`s bicycle was taken away by local bullies; the bullies used to sneeze into tissues they would then wipe on them; and the bullies smeared dog faeces on their walls. This is not just disrespectful behaviour, it is actually criminal. She also said the bullying was literally because they were foreign: they were called names, like ‘dirty Turks’. I am not even sure how to react to this, because it is honestly incredible. Who allowed this to happen? How did the neighbourhood respond; the school; everyone?!

My classmate says these kids barely remember their behaviour. They meet in the pub now, and seem like normal sociable human beings. She says, that she suspects they were treated this way because these kids did not know any better. They did not know about foreigners; they were strange, unfamiliar. Maybe their parents had certain opinions. She has also encountered this fear of the unknown outside of school. When going out, boys have reacted fearfully when she mentioned she is Syrian-Lebanese. Now, the countries get a lot of attention due to terrorism, which is bad. In the past, people did not even know where the countries were, which is equally worrying. She reckons these reactions are worse in small villages with few foreign inhabitants. She gets none of these reactions in Amsterdam.

To me this clearly signifies a ‘Western’ adaptation / integration problem. School with lots of foreign kids: things are OK. School without foreign kids: things are not OK. City with lots of foreign people: tolerance. Village without lots of foreign people: intolerance. If anything needs to be, and can be, addressed, it is this. Crucially, I am not talking about reactions to the recent situation, to what happened in 2015. This is decades. While some things have improved, others are much worse.

I read a message about a different local school last week. A mum was complaining the school had freed up its attic to let 20 refugees take language lessons, with some maths and arts. Experts were being sent in to do this. The mum was complaining how the school could accept 20 refugees, but not her own daughter, due to ‘lack of space’. Now let me point out, these kids are being put in the attic, separate from the other classes, and taught primarily language, by specially provided teachers. Do you reckon she would like her daughter in this class? Or that this project is in any way connected to space in regular classes? I can see her complaints already. But my main thought was: 20 years ago, they all went to school with the local kids. And clearly this all worked out very well. Why are they doing it differently now? When did the separation-in-the-attic thing happen?

On a final note, my classmate asked me what I liked about Syria so much. I talked about my research, but also about how kind people are. I am a vegetarian, and in France people have told me that it is my problem and good luck picking the bacon out of the food. In Syria, people would go have a look in the market to find vegetables. Oh, and have some watermelon. And some tea. My classmate reflects that in the West, people sometimes have more of an ‘every man for himself’ attitude.

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