This is not a sob story.
This is not about pointing fingers, about being holier-than-thou or about anything like that.
This is simply about the pain I’ve seen so many times before.
It’s the pain I know too well, and although I have reached a point where I can live and breathe, it breaks my heart to see it in another person.
It is a pain not acknowledged by the people around us.
I am absolutely baffled to learn that googling ‘eenzame immigrant’ (Dutch for ‘lonely immigrant’) gets me no significant results at all. A few book reviews, a book in which a lonely immigrant has a gold fish and a bunch of websites casually mentioning immigrants while actually going on about the poor lonely Dutch elderly.
I had another confrontation with it today.
If I say ‘she’, I might as well say ‘he’. If I say Africa, I might as well say anywhere in the world, except for where the large groups of immigrants to Holland come from. If I say they have children, I might as well say they were children or there are no children. If I say a few years, I mean anything from one to twenty. It doesn’t matter. Their story doesn’t even matter, I have found too few exceptions to the rule for their story to matter. It doesn’t matter from which walk of life…
It’s the pain of being an immigrant in the Netherlands. If it were only me, then maybe it’s just me. I thought I was the problem for a long time, to be honest. I think we all do, we fail. If it were only me I wouldn’t be so heartbroken. Being an immigrant in the Netherlands has taught me what loneliness is. Not the fresh-from-the-press first year immigrant kind of loneliness, but the loneliness of years and years of struggling to make meaningful connections with other humans… and being turned down for no apparent reason. I don’t understand why it happens like this. I honestly don’t, there’s not a fibre in my body able to understand this part of my host country. I am sorry. I absolutely do not see why this has to hurt so much, but I absolutely do think it is completely unnecessary.
I have been here for sixteen years, it does not feel like my home at all. After ten years, I finally managed to begin to be accepted into society, albeit still not always fully. There’s a reason for that now: I refuse to pay the price. Becoming ‘one of them’ would mean committing treason against myself. While it is absolutely true that in the past years I’ve made some wonderful Dutch friends whom I really love… I still don’t belong here and I suspect I never will. Despite what I ‘have’ here: relative safety, a roof over my head, the opportunity to do the training I need in order to use my talents to the benefit of others, my friends, not having the ‘wrong’ skin colour….
I have been here for sixteen years and despite that… I only feel free when the wheels of that plane lift off the ground at Schiphol Airport. Or I cross whatever border. And I still cry every time I have to come back, even after a short trip. I cried when they started putting Dutch subtitles in BBC broadcasts: even though I’m not British watching the BBC was my small pretend escape where I needn’t be confronted with anything Dutch. (Why am I not in England: GP training. End of story.) I was away for four weeks in January this year. I’m not one for panic attacks, but I definitely came close to them while packing for the return trip. I felt like everything associated with this place was going to suffocate me. I was surprised by the emotional effect returning to Holland has on me, despite all these years. I’m sad to say I’ve been dreaming of the day I can be free for good ever since I was fourteen years old.
I never chose to come here, but I chose to stay for the whole doctor thing. And I must add, part of why this is so hefty for me is because I am different, regardless of my passport(s). I was different in South-Africa but diversity is nothing foreign to South-Africans. Here, my being different made things worse for me.
I am accepted, not welcome. Not one of them. Just a girl in the world, foolish enough to think she has a calling, struggling to make sense of it all, struggling to find room to bloom and not grow crooked. I am strong.
I am accepted, not welcome. Not all of us are even accepted, I’ve stood up for the lonely immigrant countless times, only to be dismissed, because I don’t think like them so I can’t have a point. I was not accepted that day when I stood up, alone, explaining that I can not be forced to give up my cultural identity to take on someone else’s, that that’s impossible because where I came from made me who I am today.
This country also shaped me, and I pray to keep only the good.
Accepted is lonely.
And when I see the gratitude in someone else’s eyes, simply because I saw them, I know I am not the only one going through this pain.
The irony? Those who pop in mind when the Dutch think of immigrants (and please note generalisation is merely a sketch of an observed tendency and does not mean all are like that!) belong to immigrant communities, which actually have become Dutch minorities. Turkish, Moroccan, Caribbean, heck… even the Eastern Europeans have a group they can belong to. And yes, there are exceptions of happy immigrants (The Queen, for example, and my father-in-law).
She is the highly talented immigrant medical specialist who randomly ran into me, the med student, and through talking, learned that she’s not alone with this pain. Fifteen years, marriage to a Dutch man, and she still is seen as an outsider, still finds people simply not caring for coffee. She spends her days improving the lives of the Dutch.
He’s a trafficked African young man, fighting hard to deal with the trauma he can not even speak of. A beautiful, intelligent young man, who had been here for a few years, partly as a fugitive due to threats to kill him, and police still trying to solve the case involving him and others. He had been working minimum wage jobs all the time, despite an African university degree. He is married, has a lovely one-year-old-son. His dream is to teach, to provide for his son, to be here with his family. An honest, hard-working man and intelligent man, the sort we need more of. Police dropped his case, he is no longer legal in the country and he is facing being sent back to where he came from. Detail: police dropped the case because the traffickers (and their threats!) are where he came from. Nobody cares about his family, nobody cares about how much he has to offer, what it did to him to be half-promised residence. He got on with his life, only to have it torn apart. Why? Because he is not accepted. A Dutch Christian with a university masters degree who wanted to work in developmental stuff respondend: ‘They always tell sob stories so they can stay here, you never know what is true’. Detail: I spoke to this man, African to African, and he knew I had no influence in any immigrations decisions. And I’d actually rather let him teach my imaginary future children.
She is from India, but had been trapped here, illegally, with no passport and after all these years absolutely nothing to return to. As a member of a lower chaste, she had been at the mercy of ‘higher’ ones all her life but remembers how proud her father was of her. She can not read or write, the letters keep switching around so she couldn’t learn. Once upon a time she had been brought here by a diplomat family, then got transferred to a certain embassy who hold no respect for basic human rights. They ‘lost’ her passport, at some point ‘dismissed’ her and the letters they gave her, which she still carried around, read a bunch of fantastic lies. She had been turned down so many times when asking for help, been taken advantage of so many times when she asked someone to help her read… Turned down by her own embassy because she’s lower chaste. There is no reason in this world why this woman, who would do no harm and knows about hard work, needs to be illegal. She has no Dutch friends at all. Not because she didn’t try.
She is Russian, dreams of a career in fashion and has the guts to show her self-choreographed, dance solo filled with talent and humour at an event where hundreds of people were present… because it was Women’s Day. They enjoyed it, they laughed, they clapped and she asked us to model her designs at the fashion show at the same event. She has a few Russian friends she sometimes sees, her main point of connection with others comes from her volunteering at an organisation aiming to bring social relief to the lonely, guidance to those who need it and such. I always wondered how she kept on giving, because the reality was that she was a single mother working in a shop, lonely. There simply is no space for an extremely talented Russian lady in people’s lives. (I was one of the volunteers too, kept contact with her till I graduated).
He’s the boy with the Armenian flag, explaining how even his name got mixed up when his family sought asylum years ago, this now is the place where he can be safe. The Armenian flag pinned to his school bag is an attempt to make clear that he is NOT Turkish. He goes to a Dutch school, learning in a second language and dreaming big because you don’t pass up an opportunity to get education. He lives a lonely life, having no peers. Being Christian and actually having done an excellent job at figuring out how Holland works, you’d expect he’d get along fine. The truth is that people rarely look beyond his dark hair and lightly tinted skin, and with a tinge of an accent he is instantly placed in the same ‘box’ as the Muslim kids with a Turkish background. He wistfully looks out the library window at a muslim-Turkish protest march going on, mainly school kids. He is not one of them, not one of the others either.
She is the single mother who left Africa years ago with her abusive husband. Something something his idea to come here. He left her but did not take his massive debt with him, and poof, he’s gone. She is now struggling to raise their daughter on her own, paying off the debt and dealing with the girl’s sickle cell aneamia leading to several hospitalisations. Trying to understand what some things mean in Dutch had people label her as ‘crazy’; attempts to build friendships or even just drink a cup of coffee didn’t work because everyone is just too busy with their own family and selves. She tries to make money, tries to make ends meet, but could really really do with some support, but that’s nowhere to be found in Dutch society because they only have eye for their own. This she can explain in fluent Dutch.
Dear people, I see you, and I feel your pain.
All I am trying to say is ‘look, we’re people too’. And we’re NOT here for the clogs or the tulips, we’re here because somehow our lives turned out that way and we’re just trying to make most of it. We’d like to meet you, and allow you to meet us. As people. That’s all.