Four young Syrians Reflect on Dutch Culture

Five young men tell their story about their struggle to find a job, or start an education.

Taher (21), Obaida (21) and Omran (21) were in the same kindergarten class, seventeen years ago, in Daraa, Syria. Since then, they are like brothers to one another. Mohammed (24) is Taher’s older brother, they arrived in the Netherlands through Germany 18 months ago. Jeremy (21), who studies Social Work, is a Dutchman with a passion for refugees. He helps Mohammed practice his Dutch language skills. Taher, Mohammed and Omran now all live in the province of Zeeland. Obaida lives further to the east, in Brabant, and is visiting his best friend Taher for the day. I speak with them about living in the Netherlands.

Working and Studying in Dutch

As soon as I arrive at the station in the Zeeland town, I can smell the sea air and I see seagulls circle around in the air. The houses look picturesque and the view has an utterly Dutch feel to it. To live here as a refugee, I think to myself, must represent quite a contrast with the country where they were born and grew up in. Taher is waiting for me at the bus stop, and I am welcomed warmly into a neat apartment, three floors up. There are chocolate-filled dishes all over the table and Taher offers to make tea- “a very special, Arabian tea, bought at the Lebanese shop down the road.”

Obaida and Taher talk about finding their way around the Dutch studying landscape. They attend college information meetings to get information about their options. Obaida had started studying administration in Syria but would like to transfer to a study that is aimed more at globalisation or political science. Taher only finished high school in Syria and wants to study Business Administration.

Although both of them are quite advanced in learning Dutch, they would prefer studying in English. “I know enough Dutch to have a chat with the Dutch but studying in Dutch seems too much for me”, Obaida states. “In English it is easier for me to understand things”. RefuTales has heard this argument before. Unfortunately, both Obaida and Taher are told time and again that they have to reach a certain level of command of the Dutch language before they can start studying. One could ask the question if it is absolutely necessary to command the local language at a certain level before refugees can continue their studies. Taher adds: “I don’t get it. People from the United States or Germany can start studying in English in the Netherlands without any problem.” Obaida contacted the UAF (a foundation for refugee students, ed.) but got very little support in his quest.

“I don’t get it. People from the United States or Germany can start studying in English in the Netherlands without any problem. Why can’t I?”

The importance of practicing the local tongue is apparent as well when Mohammed explains that Jeremy’s help is on a voluntary basis. “I was lucky to find a language coach,” Mohammed says with a smile. “There are not enough volunteers for all the refugees that are taught Dutch,” he states. “Even if Jeremy is a friend now and no longer just a language coach.” Jeremy also experiences contact with Mohammed as something positive. “I am a first-year student in Social Work and for school we have to do some practical work. I immediately knew that I wanted to do something with refugees.” An exchange, or cooperation, between local inhabitants and refugees helps integration and understanding on both sides. Mohammed’s priorities are clear: “it is important to first learn enough Dutch so that I can then prepare myself for finding a job.”

“I am afraid I can’t speak a single word of Dutch, for fear of failure.”

That brings us to the question, how do the men see their career develop in the Netherlands? They indicate experiencing disadvantages because they do not yet have enough command of the Dutch language. “There are almost no English-speaking jobs in this region,” says Taher. For a job that requires Dutch, the job interview is in Dutch, too, of course. “I am scared that fear of failure will prevent me from uttering a single word in Dutch,” Taher says. “Even if I know that I can have an informal conversation in Dutch without problems.” Besides that, diplomas and certificates that they obtained in Syria are not always valid.

Cleaning and voluntary jobs

Before arriving in the Netherlands, Mohammed worked in the transport sector. In exchange for receiving welfare payments, he currently works as a cleaner for the council for about 6 to 7 hours a day. Mohammed sees this as something positive, in principle. This way he can practice his Dutch and his days are fuller. But he indicates that he does not see this job as a long-term solution. He would want to work more hours and wants to move back to the field he previously worked in. Jeremy is afraid that both men will experience prejudice and discrimination the moment they start looking for a ‘real job’. “I think that refugees will be able to get volunteering jobs or jobs through the municipality, such as Mohammed has. But I fear that it will be harder for them to find work through an employment agency.”

“It is hard to imagine the future. We have no plan.”

Uncertainty, in both study and work, makes answering questions about their future difficult. “It is hard to imagine the future”, says Taher. “As soon as the war in Syria is over, I would like to go back. Syria will need me when the country needs rebuilding.” Obaida does not have the words to describe how much the Netherlands differs from his home country. Although he is grateful for finding refuge, he would prefer living in an Arabian country where there would be fewer differences in language and culture. The most important difference he notices is the degree of hospitality. In Syria it is more common to live closer together. The Dutch are more individualistic, making it harder for him to make contact. “And,” he jokes, “that weak Dutch black coffee.”

Mohammed adds: “Even though Saudi Arabia is for one half my mother country, I am not allowed there.” Unfortunately, my question on why he can’t enter Saudi Arabia remains unanswered. Mohammed agrees with his younger brother Taher: “It is hard to imagine the future, also concerning the desire to start a relationship or a family. We have no plan.”


Translated by: Phoenix Vertalingen


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