Feeling at home is something else than integration

By Mohammad Kafina

It is midday in Merkelbeek. It is too quiet, as always. The Palestinian Maher Barakat (43) sits in the garden of his house to have coffee and smoke cigarettes. After five years of living in this small town, Maher developed friendships with many of his neighbours, but feeling at home might be more complicated than he thought.

In November 2014, Maher was forced to seek refuge out of Syria. He lives with his wife Neven Alnadeem (40) and two children Nadeem (13) and Yaman (10) in Merkelbeek. Since then, Maher and his family were able to integrate well into Dutch society. Both he and Neven have obtained a good level of Dutch. They also have a job. Maher works as a cultural mediator at the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers “COA”. As for Neven, she works as a financial administrator at the Tulip Inn Heerlen City Centre. Nadeem and Yaman have friends and feel at ease living in Merkelbeek.

For Maher, it is not easy to live in a small town like Merkelbeek. Many neighbours like Kris Kuipers (62) and Lida Bosch (76) pays him regularly a visit. However, being born and raised in a metropolitan like Damascus weighs heavily on settling down in Merkelbeek. “I really have good friends and neighbours, but I still feel like I am missing something”, says Maher while smoking a cigarette, “The town is too quiet, and the only thing that brings me back here is my family.”

A positive reaction

Many people in Merkelbeek reacted positively with the family when they came to live in the town. Even those who were not so good at English tried to communicate with Maher as much as possible. Being open made it easier for the neighbours to have a good relationship with Maher’s family. About that, Lida says: “They speak to everyone. They are not old-fashioned people. Neven is like people here. She wears modern clothes, and that was better for her to feel more welcome.”

After one year of living in Merkelbeek, friends told Maher and Neven that they want to speak with them in Dutch. In this way, the neighbours wanted to improve the way how they speak Dutch. “They helped me to overcome the psychological barrier that prevented me from speaking the language”, says Maher.

Another element that helped Maher in learning Dutch was getting a job. When he started working, he felt that people around him were open to socializing with him. They did that even if he was not willing to speak their language. “Being in such a position encouraged me to practise speaking Dutch and learn more about the traditions of the Dutch society”, explains Maher. “I felt that I have to show the appreciation that they deserved from me.”

Food was also a crucial element for bringing the family closer to the neighbours. About that, Kris says: “I love their food. When Eid al-Fitr comes, they give us some cookies. I also love their Falafel. On the other hand, eating Keppeling is a unique experience for the kids. They did that for the first time with Kris.

Kids feel at home

For the kids, it is another story. Yaman is a football talent in the area and plays currently for the Green Eagles team in Heerlen. He has good friends and feels at home in the town. “I came here to Merkelbeek when I was very young, and this helped me in being accustomed to living in this town”, says Yaman while bouncing a basketball. “I have not lived in a big city, and therefore, I do not know how life there might be”.

Nadeem has a red belt in Taekwondo and plays the saxophone. He also has good friends. “For me, I can stay here for years-long”, says Nadeem. “I hope that my grandparents can visit us, but they cannot do that”.

Happiness is something relative

Kris Kuipers and Lida Bosch helped Maher and Neven to socially integrate in Merkelbeek. Photo: Mohammad Kafina

Neven is much involved in voluntary activities. She is the treasurer of the Taekwondo Association where her son Nadeem practices the sport. Her satisfaction with living in Merkelbeek is more than that of Maher. However, not being able to bring her parents on a visit to the Netherlands is an obstacle in the way of feeling at ease. “Although Maher and I have a job, we cannot arrange to get visas for my parents because they are Palestinians with Syrian travel documents for refugees”, say Neven. “When we have to see them, we need to travel to a third country”, she adds.

Next summer vacation, the family plans to travel to Turkey where they can stay a couple of weeks with the parents of Neven.

Feeling at home?

Maher and his family recently became Dutch citizens. However, feeling at home is something complicated for Maher. About that, he says: “When I came to the Netherlands, I was 36 years old. At that age, you cannot build a feeling of belonging that can compete with your previous feeling of belonging in a short period. For sure, I have a good feeling towards the town and feel satisfied when I come back home. But I feel much connected to the streets of the country where I used to live. Besides, I have not been through a situation where I had to test affiliation to the Netherlands.”

Maher has a mother and a brother in Syria whom he did not see for years long. In addition, he has friends who still reside in Syria and other friends who live in various European countries. “Feeling at home means having your family and friends beside you”, says Maher. “Time is the only thing that can tell when I will have that kind of affinity towards the streets of Merkelbeek”, he concludes.