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The Bad Do-Gooder

When helping refugees doesn't work out as planned

One stereotype for my baby, one more for the road.

My husband and I are attending a birthday drink of a Syrian friend, R. He just turned 29. My husband, who still hasn’t lost his Spanish accent after living more than a decade outside his native country, wishes him a happy birthday.

‘You have to excuse me, man.’ R tells him, while they shake hands and clap shoulders. ‘Since watching Narcos, each time I hear a Spanish accent, I think of drug lords scheming.’ Narcos is a TV series on Colombian drug king Pablo Escobar.

I can tell a great joke set-up when I hear one, and this one is too tempting to resist: ‘Don’t worry about it,’ I tell R. ‘Since watching every Hollywood movie ever, each time we hear an Arabic accent, we think it’s terrorists plotting.

R. bursts out laughing and we high-five.

Stereotypes: let’s just blame Hollywood.

 

‘The director will be right with us,’ the project manager welcomes me. She’s a blond woman in her 40s, a gentle voice, an understated outfit. Her organisation supports Amsterdam youngsters who have dropped out of school. To drive the point home, their offices are located in a former school building, the classrooms transformed into offices. Their teenage participants follow a training programme in event organisation. Each summer new trainees volunteer at music festivals, picking up trash. By the end of the year they graduate by organising their own event. The organisation is now looking to branch out, and offer the same programme to refugees.

My organisation works mostly with refugee-artists, but a few of the people I know have experience in the events: a Jamaican man who used to plan fashion shows and weddings for a large hotel chain, and a Syrian man who worked in PR and event organisation in Dubai.

I’m still standing in their meeting room, looking for a spot for my coat, when the director strides in. He shakes my hand with a firm grip, and perches himself on the edge of a chair, ready to leave the moment something more urgent is announced. I sit down on the couch, my coat still on, my backpack on my lap. The project manager sits across from me. We both turn to him.

‘Wonderful you could make it,’ he informs me. ‘Obviously we’re very interested in taking on some of the refugees you are in touch with.’ Pleasantries out of the way, he continues with the typical Dutch getting-to-the-pointness my inner Flemish still feels squeamish about: ‘There’s one thing, though, we have to be very upfront about: if we enter your people in our programme, they will also be registered with us in the RAAK-system.’ If this conversation would’ve had soundtrack, this last sentence would have been accompanied by a crack of lightning, a roll of thunder.

I nod, taking a breath to react to this brusque ouverture. He gets up. ‘That’s it. You can think it over. Our project manager will tell you more about the project, and I hope we can find a way to work together.’ He offers his hand, I stumble up, and shake it. He leaves. I turn to the project manager. ‘Would you like some coffee?’ she asks.

This anecdote isn’t meant to criticize. It’s meant to indicate how an organisation’s priorities change, based on policy decisions.

For those who aren’t aware of the minutia of Amsterdam bureaucracy, some background. The City of Amsterdam has a policy which states that every citizen without a job, has to find one asap. Because of the issue of unemployment benefits which the city would prefer to pay less of. To reach this goal, the city has put in place agreements with a selection of organisations and social enterprises. These parties receive funding, and in exchange they have to ‘activate’ people. That’s the word used in the policy paper. As if people have an ‘off’-switch and it’s the job of these organisations to locate it, and flip it to ‘on’.

To keep an overview of which unemployed people are registered with which organisation, the city has put in place a system call RAAK. ‘RAAK’ in this context roughly translates to ‘HIT’, as in a goal scored, or a song making it into the top 10. It’s managed by ‘client managers’, bureaucrats which have a number of ‘refugee clients’ whom they have to guide to a job, with a gentle or a more forceful hand.

So when a refugee registers with an organisation which is on the RAAK-list, his client manager enters this into the system: organisation A is ‘activating’ refugee Z. After a period of time, the client manager will get back to the organisation to check how they’re doing. Each organisation wants to be able to show the city the longest list of ‘activated’ people.

This was important enough to this director to tell me in person, before I took my coat off. He informed me, that whatever efforts I and my organisation had made on behalf of our client, what mattered to them is that, if they would take him on, in the end they would be receiving the very real financial benefits. I cannot blame him, he has an organisation to run, salaries to pay. But the way RAAK is set up, it discourages collaboration between organisations, it pits them against each other.

It takes a village to include a newcomer.

In fact, it leads to organisations actively discouraging other people or organisations from helping their client, because they fear that they will miss out on the credit and hence the funding. I had coffee with a colleague who works for a RAAK-listed organisation: ‘One of my people was offered help from this other organisation. So I called them and told them to back off. We are helping him, I will not have them get any credit.’ I cannot think of any other service organisation who decides for their clients, on whose service they will accept and whose not. Only NGOs. I will get back to you on that one.

Surely, we can think of a way to have organisations collaborate? We all have too few resources, too much work. Surely this would benefit our clients, and our personal lives. After all, it takes a village of include a newcomer.

Captivity for Dummies.

‘And for crying out loud, stay away from large crowds,’ my sister snaps at me through the phone. Caring really brings out her cranky side. I’ve been invited to a conference on the Syrian refugee crisis. In Lebanon. Upon telling my sister, she immediately sent me a link with travel recommendations. It included a map of Lebanon in mostly yellow, turning to orange, and red near the Syrian border. I shrug it off: ‘It’s a serious humanitarian organisation. They work with the UN Refugee Agency. I’m sure they’ve their safety procedures worked out. They won’t take us to the really tricky places.’ I wisely refrain from mentioning that an international meet-up of 150 people in the centre of Beirut might constitute exactly such a crowd as she refers to. Also, I count on us being too trivial for any terrorist worth his salt to spend his bullets on.1 reisadvies_libanon_30-5-2016_620

To tell the truth, I’m a catastrophist. Always imagining the worst. A common bad day is sheer relief to me. This conference invitation left me with plenty of scope for the imagination. I’d never been to the Middle East, or to a refugee camp. Would it be safe? Was I overreacting? Or not careful enough?

The morning of the conference I wake up confident. I arrived the evening before, but my luggage didn’t. So, that very evening I ventured into Beirut to buy a clean t-shirt. The staff of the plush hotel assured me the neighbourhood was safe, even at night. I walked to the high street, which was filled with people meeting friends, eating a late dinner, chatting behind coffees and water pipes. I found a t-shirt, had a stroll, and a cup of tea in a cafe. I slept well.

The conference starts. Speakers speak. During the break, I go outside, where my smoking friends hang out. Right in front of the entrance, I see a new addition: four jeeps, and leaning against them, eight men in camouflage outfits and aviator glasses. They’re chatting and smoking, machine guns casually slung over their shoulders. Some of my fellow participants are taking pictures with them. ‘It’s fine,’ I think. ‘No different from a calm day in Brussels nowadays. Just common sense.’ After all, one of the speakers this morning is the Qatari ambassador. And the Norwegian one. Nothing out of the ordinary.

The conference resumes. And then, just when a speaker makes a particular rousing intervention, the lights go out. It’s pitch dark. I look to where I know the doors are situated, one to my far right, one right behind me. ‘Isn’t that how it went in Paris?’ flashes through my mind. ‘The lights are switched off, and people with machine guns enter?’ Everybody in the room stays calm, so I do, too. I can’t discern any movement near the entrance, I don’t hear any sounds to alarm me, no scuffling, no clicking, no shouting. After a minute the lights switch back on. The conference continues. Just a power cut. I knew that.

On the last day of the conference we’re visiting three refugee camps in the Bekaa-Valley, rather close to the Syrian border. The evening before, I’m in my hotel room, preparing. I’m sure it will be absolutely safe, but I don’t want to be an idiot about it, because this is Lebanon and stuff happens. So, I pack for the occasion, the occasion being kidnapped by a terrorist faction.

I put my clothes for the next day on a chair. Skinny jeans and sneakers, convenient for kicking and running away in. Sports bra, same reason. I pick a loose, long-sleeved shirt utterly lacking in decolletage, in order not to offend Muslim refugees or, just in case, religious extremists.

I take a rain coat, and a cardigan in case it gets cold. Also, if kidnapped, we’ll probably be taken to a cabin in the mountains. And clearly, high in the mountains, a light cardigan is just the ticket. I take a long scarf against the cold. It can also serve to cover up my hair. Or to tie up wounded limbs.

Then I prepare my backpack. Paper tissues, aspirins and tictacs. Mobile phone, charger and ear plugs. A notebook and four pens to write everything down, also to smuggle out coded messages. A role of toilet paper, because it’s common knowledge there is none for hostages in terrorist mountain cabins. My ID and debit cards, but not my passport. I’m sure there was a compelling reason which I can’t quite recall right now. A small dispenser of stevia sweetener, because sugar is as deadly as ISIS.

I take an extra t-shirt, because being kidnapped can take a while. Also, an extra set of underwear, because on the list of my mum’s biggest fears, right below her daughter being kidnapped, is her daughter being extracted from a hostage situation with her unmentionables in an unmentionable state.

I add two pairs of hairslides – a pair in my hair, the others in my jeans pocket- and one pair of earrings. Before I left, my sister made sure to introduce me to her friend who’d been around conflict zones. This friend had been informed on what to do when in trouble. One of the things she told me is that, theoretically, you can open handcuffs with a hairpin, once you’ve prised off the plastic tips, or the hook of an earring. Apparently, all handcuffs have a similar lock, so she advised me to check online what the lock looks like on the inside. ‘Once you’ve seen it, it’s pretty easy. I got the knack of it in twenty minutes,’ she’d assured me. I didn’t have handcuffs to practice on, but I did manage to prise off the tips of the hair slides. As to unlocking my handcuffs with a pin in a mountain cabin, I figure being a hostage will provide me with sufficient motivation to speed up my learning curve.

I pack my glasses, and the fluid and holder for my contact lenses. I can’t see a thing without my contacts. Imagine losing a contact on the dirty cabin floor. Probably the goat will eat it. Plus there’s a fair chance I’ll drop the hairslide when fiddling with the handcuffs. I’ll never find it again without my glasses.

I don’t take a knife, because I don’t have one, plus I expect that the only one I’ll end up hurting is myself. I do take a large hairpin, metal, curving into a vicious point. Because that will surely escape their notice, when clipped in my hair.

When I return back home, unkidnapped and safe, my sister reminds me I was supposed to hide the hairslides in my bra ‘because they don’t let you keep your backpack, you stupid.’ She also sighs, as she often does, to stop overthinking things. I really should. Because, clearly, this is abundant proof that overthinking isn’t the same as thinking things through.

Conflict zones for Dummies

‘Syrian Border: 35 km,’ shows the board next to the highway. A buzz of excitement goes through the bus. I’m in Beirut, for a two-day conference on the refugee crisis in Lebanon. This tiny country of 4 million people is hosting over 1.5 million refugees. Today the Lebanese organisation hosting the conference is taking us on a visit of the refugee camps in the Bekaa Valley, near the Syrian border.

We left Beirut this morning in two small buses, accompanied by one police car. Driving through the south of the city to get to the highway, I spot buildings with pockmarked walls from bullet marks. Some have big blacks gaps, as if a large animal passed by, taking greedy bites out of the stone. Only later I’m told this area of Beirut is Hezbollah territory.

I’m propped up on a fold-out seat in the aisle of the bus. On either side of me are two Syrians who have been living in Norway for over ten years. They both work in the medical field, one an oncologist, one a microbiologist. I work with refugees in the safety of Amsterdam. I have never been to a refugee camp in a humanitarian setting.

‘This is the road to Damascus.’ Nabil, on my right, says. He is the oncologist, with a teaching position at a Norwegian university. He checks the GPS on his mobile phone. I look over his shoulder and see our blue dot moving closer to the Syrian border.

‘We are about 60 km from Damascus now,’ he tells me. I calculate: just a forty-minute drive. I’ve never been this close to a conflict zone. ‘How does it feel, to be so close to home?’ I ask him. He pauses. ‘I can’t really describe it,’ he answers.

A hilly landscape rolls by, brown dust, rocks, some sparse trees. Down below we see shepherds and their sheep, some black, some white. The highway is lined with shops and billboards advertising wedding dresses, luxury cruises, even Dunkin’ Donuts.

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It feels disconcertingly normal for a place so close to where all the global action is, where the world’s Bad Guys are doing their Bad Things, where it’s so complex. nobody can decide on who the Good Guys are, even less on which Good Things could end the violence.

We stop at a gas station for small cups of strong Lebanese coffee. Some of us buy snacks for the road, bags of nuts, crisps, and unfamiliar candy bars with Arabic letters on their bright wrappers.  Some of my Muslim companions use the break to pray: the gas station has, next to the tiny shop, a prayer room. It looks like a converted garage, the floor covered with carpets.

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Ordering my coffee inside the bar, I can see the adjoining room through the glass sliding door. A young woman sits on a pillow, her back against the glass wall. She has a baby on her lap, the child’s colourful outfit a shock of colour against her black abaya.

The cup in my hand, I leave the bar and walk to the edge of the gas station: there is balcony, looking out over the valley. It’s quiet, except for the cars driving by on the highway. The sky is grey, it looks like smoke, but Nabil had told me it’s just mist. People are taking pictures of the valley.

‘Over there is Syria.’

Syria. I’ve never been there, but I’ve read so many articles about it, I have seen so many pictures of the war there, always about the war. I’ve heard so many stories from Syrian refugees, people who used to live there, whose families are still there. It’s like a familiar story, I know the characters, the script, I’ve read analyses from different angles, but it always remained flat letters on a page, not quite real. This is different. It’s like I’ve been dropped between the covers of a book.

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One of the Dutch people walks up to where I stand. He’s Syrian himself, but has been living in the Netherlands for over twenty years. I met him at the conference, two days ago. He wore an orange tie, the Dutch national colour, and I teased him about it.

‘We used to take this road all the time, driving from Damascus to Beirut.’ he tells me. ‘My mother still takes it. She takes the plane to Beirut and then gets a taxi to take her to Damascus.’ I’m baffled by how easy and casual it sounds. I thought you needed an armed guard, possibly a tank, and be checked at millions of checkpoints. We can’t see the border from here, but surely it must have a wall higher than the one Trump imagines for the American-Mexican border?

‘Why can’t you go?’ I ask him. He grimaces, his eyes fixed on the horizon. ‘I’m rather anti-Assad. It might not be safe for me to show up there.’  ‘He wanders off to take pictures of the valley. There is nothing to see, just dust, rocks, sparse trees. Some of the sand, the rocks, the trees are Syrian.

Another Dutch companion wanders towards me across the gas station, smoking a cigarette. Having spent an hour in Lebanese traffic and its continuous almost-collisions, one develops a rather laissez-faire-attitude towards danger. She is in her fifties, a fierce woman who gets things done. She has set up her own organisation in Amsterdam, helping refugee artists find their footing. The smoke from her ever-present cigarettes and her dark grey hair curling around her head, give the impression of small cloud of thunder following her around. As if her constant indignation at the state of the world has condensed around her.

‘I can’t believe Damascus is that close.’ she says. I nod. We look at the hills in the distance. ‘I swear, if I could, I would just take a cab and go.’ She shifts her weight. ‘You’d do that?’ I ask.  ‘Sure. Wouldn’t you?’ I imagine a taxi with two white, scruffy women, one chain smoking, one coughing pointedly, arriving at the Syrian border.

I’d always get irritated when reading stories about backpackers travelling into dangerous regions, and then getting themselves kidnapped. Tourists, I’d fume, thinking they’re exceptions to the rules, thinking their holidays are above details such as violent conflicts.

But now I start to understand how it happens. The scenery here is so common, so every day, I can’t connect it with the stories I’ve read, which take place just a short drive from here. It doesn’t seem real. Surely, there can’t be a civil war around the corner? There can’t be chemical attacks? There can’t be half the global powers involved, with all their military accoutrements? Surely it would be louder? With an ominous glow in the distance? At least one apocalyptic horseman?

In stories the environment always obligingly rearranges itself according to the atmosphere: shadows hovering, clouds assembling, thunder clapping. Danger is announced in the scenery, there is ominous looming and creaking. But this is such a mundane place, with grocery shops, with billboards along the road, with mums holding babies on their laps, danger seems unfeasible. I could imagine people disregarding the stories, and doing an every day thing fitting this every day scene, and just hail a cab.  Because you couldn’t possibly arrive by a cab in the Syria of the media. It would take a witch’s spell or a quantum leap.

Back in Amsterdam I bring it up to a Syrian friend, how normal it seemed, how I couldn’t connect it to the war. ‘It’s like that,’ he tells me. ‘Everything is normal, you go about your life, and suddenly,’ he snaps his fingers in front of my face, ‘a bomb drops, and whoosh, everything changes.’

So that is life in war time? You’re having breakfast –snap- you’re in Game of Thrones. You do your laundry – snap- you’re in War of Worlds. You don’t see it coming, you can’t do a thing, except wait and hope things snap back.

Charitable me

At the tender age of six I had my first experience with charity. Kicking the legs of my worn-out desk, I listened to miss Gerritsen. She was telling the class about the poor children in Africa who had nothing, and we had so much. I made my face look sad, to show how sorry I was for the little African children. I knew that was what good girls did. I liked miss Gerritsen because she’d put an angel sticker in my notebook when I’d written my lines without mistakes. The angels wore draped pink outfits and had glittery silver wings. They were sweet, sugary, yet fabulous, like a catholic prequel of My Little Pony.

To help the poor African children our catholic school had organised a charity activity. We’d be collecting the tinfoil wrappers around chocolate bars and send them to Africa. Not the chocolate bars, just the tinfoil. The chocolate we could eat ourselves.

My six-year old self set her jaw: I would collect the most tinfoil and get the angel sticker.

For four weeks I collected tinfoil. Sitting at our scratched kitchen table I’d iron out the creases with my thumbnail, until they’d become shiny sheets of silver. With chocolate flecking my pudgy hands – yes pudgy, I was sacrificing my health and beauty here- I’d put the crinkling sheets in a box and carry them to school. I had the most tinfoil, I got the glittery angel.

It wasn’t until two days ago –I’m 42 now- that I asked myself why, for crying out loud, did we send tinfoil to Africa?  Without the chocolate even? It seemed more sadism than charity.

I found that a Flemish journalist had asked himself the same question. He had called the Flemish missionaries who had collected the tinfoil. They told him that the tinfoil itself wasn’t sent to Africa. It was melted in Flemish factories to be re-used and sold. Aha. Except that the journalist found no trace of these tinfoil-melting factories. Also, no European country, except Flanders and the South of The Netherlands, had ever engaged in a tinfoil charity action. The journalist guessed that the missionaries’ goal had been awareness-building, so Flemish children will be reminded of those less fortunate when they eat chocolate. Little did they know it worked the other way around: it was my Christian duty to eat more chocolate, because the little Congolese children needed tinfoil.

That little story was my first encounter with charity. It was great. I was giving away something I didn’t need anyway, plus getting social recognition and a nice warm glow out of it? What’s not to like?

When I reached my teenage years I discovered another side of charity: justified anger. What a drug. I’m a soft-spoken person. I catch spiders in a glass and set them free outside. I’m nice. I hate ‘nice’, but there it is. The only time I can really justify getting angry, is when I have to stand up for the underdog. And that’s where charity comes in.

I went vegetarian so I could sit cross-armed at the kitchen table and glare at my family eating lamb chops. ‘That was a living creature playing happily with its friends between the buttercups.’ I would say. Or simply an accusatory ‘Beh.’

I wore black and listened to grunge music. I became the person fighting injustice, just so my pent up rage had some place to go. There is something utterly delicious telling people they are wrong and you are right, and they can’t tell you otherwise, because it makes them look like heartless bastards.

It may not come as a surprise I ended up in the NGO-sector. I worked at an organisation for refugees’ human rights. I loved it. Every time I introduced myself to new people, they’d go green with envy: ‘That’s amazing. You’re doing something to change the world. I just work at a bank.’ Then I’d be extra nice to them, because banks and their employees have money, something NGOs are always in need of.

My colleagues were clever. They were articulate. They worked themselves to the bone. Some of them had pent up rage. Some of them just wanted the pink angel sticker. We all wanted to help people. In fact, we were all so busy helping people that we were too busy to help people. That’s what I found out when one day we got a letter from a refugee asking for legal help, which we didn’t provide.

‘What shall I do?’ I asked my colleague. I meant what recommendations can I give him?

She took the pen out of her mouth, and with her eyes on her files, she shrugged, ‘Just throw it out. We don’t do that kind of stuff.’

I shook my head: ‘But we help refugees. It says so in our mission statement. And I’ve never even met a refugee, I just write papers and go to conferences. Even if we don’t provide legal assistance, we should at least answer him, refer him.’

‘Fine. Then answer him. But there’s nothing we can do.’

If it seems I’m judging her, you’re mistaken. She was smart, she had a brilliant degree, and could have made a lot of money anywhere else. Instead she chose to work long hours for a mediocre salary. She was just busy. I was busy. So, I went back to work. I left the crumpled envelope on my desk, against my computer screen.

It just didn’t sit right. How could we be too busy to help the people we were supposed to help? I re-read the letter: the man was stuck in Italy, his brother in Germany, how could he make it there? I had no idea. But I looked up the contact details of refugee organisations and asylum-lawyers in Italy and Germany. I put them in a letter, and wished him all the best. I just didn’t want him to think nobody cared enough to answer, even if we weren’t able to help. During the next year I would collect the occasional letters we would receive from refugees and write back. It was a start.

The accidental poet

On my Facebook wall today, four unassuming lines. They are written by a Syrian acquaintance who fled the war over a year ago:

A conversation between me and my Mam
How are you mam? she said: I’m fine and you?
I answered I’m fine mam
(Both of us know that is not the truth)

It was his birthday yesterday.

How casually poetry and loss drift our way.

Who wants to be a refugee?

“I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t call me anymore,” the polite voice on the phone tells me. Hardly any trace of an accent. I’m organizing an event for an NGO advocating for a more humane EU-asylum policy. Usually, those events are filled to the brim with stakeholders. That’s the fancy word for anybody having anything to do with asylum policy: policy makers from national governments, advocacy officers from national NGOs and the VIPs, the high-level bureaucrats from the European Commission or the more interesting European Parliamentarians. Basically, a lot of men in suits.

Oddly, we don’t have a tradition of inviting refugees themselves, the people with the biggest stake in a humane asylum policy. So, since a year or so, we’ve decided that this is rather elitist and selective. That’s why I’m on the phone, trying to find a person with refugee status who’s willing to give up a day off to come to a rather dull conference if you aren’t into the intricacies of asylum law. And even then.

As an NGO we are always looking for ‘life stories’ to add some flavor to the dry policy papers. The young man on the phone had the perfect story. He had fled Iraq and ended up in Belgium. He had recently graduated, and was now working as a graphic designer. The perfect story of success against all odds. On top of that, he had made a funny animation film about the Kafkaesque asylum bureaucracy which we wanted to show at the event. Provided it wasn’t too prickly and possibly insulting to our VIPs. Obviously.

But he politely declined my invitation: “Fleeing my country was just one phase of my life. Now, I live in Belgium, I’m a graphic designer. I’m done being a refugee. I want to focus on my career and my life here. I’m sorry. Goodbye.”

I will tell you a little secret: people and organizations who work with refugees do not necessarily have the same definition of what a refugee is. We all use different criteria, and they don’t necessarily overlap.

For the general public, everybody who flees their home to escape a bad situation is a refugee, no matter where they come from. It varies from ´real´refugees to legal EU-migrants, such as Polish migrants, to non-EU migrants without visa. This really irks NGOs who stick religiously to the legal definition and think everybody else should, too. So, we are constantly trying to educate the masses.

The ‘real’ refugee is a legal category defined according to the Geneva Convention of 1951:

“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it..”

This piece of text is absolutely sacrosanct from the point of view of a legal expert. I’m not one, but working with advocacy lawyers who study every comma in asylum law, I very quickly learned.

This little piece of text is the basic legal framework that all the national and European asylum legislation is based on. If you’re having dinner with asylum experts, and you’re grasping for a foothold in the conversation, just mention ‘the Convention’.

The Convention is set in stone, not to be touched. With the issue of climate refugees, there have been voices to amend the Convention definition, so it will also include climate refugees. I always thought that seemed quite logical, something that every asylum expert would be happy about: more protection for more categories of people.

But one of my expert colleagues was categorically against it: ‘No way,’ he shook his head firmly. ‘It’s like adding rule Eleven to the Ten Commendments. You just don’t. They cannot be changed. Because once they are, they can also be changed to include less categories of people, and offer less protection. We just need to develop separate legislation for climate refugees.”

Secondly, there are people who fall outside the Geneva definition, no matter how their actual situation might look absolutely the same as those of ‘real’ refugees. One example is the legal category of Internally Displaced People or IDPs –NGOs love them some acronyms. As is mentioned in the definition above, a refugee is a person who is ‘outside the country of his nationality.’ So if you are a Somali and fleeing violence, and you make it with your family and your bags to a more peaceful village, but still inside Somalia, you’re not a refugee, because you haven’t crossed a border. Common sense and jurisprudence don’t necessarily overlap.

Thirdly, there are migrants. They fall into a totally different legal framework. Apples and pears. Or apples and pigeons. Again, even though their situations might seem the same: if they end up in the migrant-category, totally different regulations are triggered. Even if many of the migrants now could be seen as climate refugees, fleeing extreme draughts.

So for me, having learned the NGO-definition of a refugee, the Geneva Convention-definion, I couldn’t understand why the Iraqi graphic designer told me he was done being a refugee. He had been granted asylum, so on paper he was a refugee. Then why didn’t he identify as one, damn it? How could he be done?

Food for thought: locals and refugees connect over dinner.

Pakhuis de Zwijger organises its first Eat to Meet with refugees.

Friday 29 January 2016, Amsterdam. I feel like I’m crashing a wedding. A very large, very international one. I am in the large hall of Pakhuis de Zwijger. There are rows of long tables, laid out with red and white checked table clothes, and a stage with musicians playing classical Arab music. I’ve just arrived, by myself, for my first dinner with refugees. I expected an intimate tête-a-twenty in the ground floor restaurant. Instead I find myself mingling with the 149 other guests.

Variations on a theme: Eat to Meet and Meet and Eat

The concept is surprisingly simple: invite refugees, invite locals, put a meal in the middle, and conversation will ensue. There are several organisations organising these kinds of dinners, all with their own specific twist. Eat to Meet is an online platform which brings strangers with similar interests to the table. Today the focus is on refugees, but it might just as well be the sharing economy or sustainability. Another is Meet and Eat, a concept of the Amsterdam branch of foundation Present, which focuses exclusively on creating a connection between refugees and locals. They have a more personalised approach, where they connect refugees to Dutch families. So far 450 refugees who live at one of the four crisis reception centers in Amsterdam have had dinner at the home of 200 host families.

The Present organiser, Karin Schreurs, tells me that even with wildly different backgrounds and views on life, things go well more often than not. Apparently, the rules of hospitality are so ingrained that everybody knows to avoid touchy subjects. No politics or religion at the dinner table seems to be a cross-cultural rule. Often people stay in touch, meeting up regularly, and friendships develop.

First course: Nibbling at stories

Sitting down at a table at the Pakhuis, I notice that chatting with so many complete strangers in the course of three hours is an unfulfilling experience. There is only time to exchange little nibbles of life. It’s as if somebody has thrown random pages of hundreds of novels in the air, and you have three hours to leaf through them. So many stories, and only time to read a few lines.

With my first conversation partners I never make it past the opening paragraph. The sturdy Dutch woman across from me works at the Albert Cuyp market. The bald Syrian man to my right is an accountant. His dream, refreshingly prosaic, is to become a tax accountant in the Netherlands. The salads arrive. An Iraqi man in his early twenties gets up on stage to thank the Dutch people for opening their hearts to refugees. He speaks in broken English about the difficulties they have faced at the Hungarian borders, their fears. The Dutch woman across from me wipes away a few tears.

Second course: Sued for Thought

After the first course, Egbert Fransen, the director of the Pakhuis, takes the microphone and invites us to switch chairs, for a change in conversation. Most of us have only just managed to get comfortable with our table partners, so we stay put. I turn to the twenty-something man on my left, who is dressed with such extravagant cool, I hardly dare to address him. He looks like a stylish fashion designer, straight from New York. Instead, he turns out to be from a small village in Iran. Quietly and casually, he tells me he has fled because his father, a local imam, wanted to have him executed. Because he has a different lifestyle than traditional men, such as his father, deem proper. It’s those moments I feel embarrassed about getting miffed at my dad for not attending my high school play. Have I mentioned this whole conversation takes place in Dutch? My new friend has taught himself Dutch in the four months since his arrival. He studies every day for hours.

More dishes arrive, fragrant stews, some vegetarian, some chicken. I offer him some. “Is this meat?” he asks. “Well, it has some chicken.” I say. He shakes his head. “This is halal, I only eat haram. The more haram, the better.” He reaches over the table for the wine and fills his glass. “I love pork,” he adds. I once read that the Ottoman muslims used to drink wine, as a consolation for having to live in an imperfect world. As far as I am concerned, this kid deserves all the wine on the table, in the country, in the world.

Dessert: Slicing the Fruit of Friendship

There are more announcements on stage. A Dutch woman, a volunteer at one of the crisis reception centres, gets up. She says that they have just received the news that, starting next week, fifty of the refugees in the crisis reception centre will be transferred to another location. There, their asylum procedure will finally begin. More transfers are to follow. “They have been with us for three months.” she says, her voice breaking. “I have met many wonderful people, made new friends. I hope that after their procedure they will be settled in Amsterdam. They are Amsterdammers now, they are part of us.”

It cannot imagine bureaucrats taking heed of words from the heart. But I understand where she’s coming from. We’ve been involved in these refugees’ stories, be it for a paragraph, a page or a chapter, and are captivated. We want to continue to play a role. We want to know how their stories develop. We hope for happy endings.

Want to attend an Eat to Meet with refugees in Amsterdam? Contact Pakhuis de Zwijger.
Want to invite refugees to your home or your company for dinner? Contact Present .

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