Newfound Purpose

Five refugees on how they regained their lives

What if the country where you were born and raised becomes unsafe for you to be in? In that case, a lot of people would flee their country. In 2019 the United Nations published a report with a record number of people who fled their country due to war or violence. That year about 79,5 million people left their homes looking for a fresh start. The lucky ones end up in a safe country and receive a residence permit. For them, a new life begins. But what is it like to start life all over again? 

Kassem Salama (23) fled from the civil war in Syria when he was only 19 years old. He arrived in the Netherlands in 2019 on the day of the Gay Parade: “I remember that I needed to travel by train. I had learned how to buy a ticket, but the train station was so overcrowded that I forgot to buy one. The train was full of people who were dressed in bright colours. Everyone was happy, drinking and dancing in the train. I asked a woman what was going on. When she explained it to me, I found it odd. A party like this would never ever happen in Syria, but I then realised that I had arrived in a free country.” He lives with eight boys, which was something that needed time to get used to in the beginning. “The walls are thin so I can hear everything my roommates are doing, but the boys are my newfound family. I am becoming more Dutch each day. My roommate Paco says that I am verkaast as they say here. Meanwhile, my roommates are becoming Syrian,” Kassem says. In Syria he studied English literature, now Kassem is busy learning Dutch: “All the neon post-it’s have Arabic words translated to Dutch. I am not yet reborn, but I will be.”

When Ali Mohammad (49) came to the Netherlands from Somalia 20 years ago, he was reborn in a new country. However, Ali’s rebirth is not an easy one. Ali waited four years to get his residence permit in the Netherlands. “Living in a refugee camp was very hard,” says Ali, “I did not know anything about my future.” Ali had only to spend time playing cards or football with other asylum seekers. When days pass, waiting in vain will not be the only thing to do. “I decided to study motor maintenance at Groningen University, even if I was not provided with the permit to stay here”, Ali explains. Three and half years later, Ali obtained his diploma. A couple of days after that, he got his residence permit and in two weeks he moved to a house in Alkmaar. In a month, he started working as an entrepreneur. When you ask him about the future, Ali thinks about a new rebirth. He waits for the moment to travel back home and live in Mogadishu. “When my kids become financially independent, nothing will prevent me from moving back home,” Ali concludes. 

When Yohannes Cidey (34) came to the Netherlands in 2015, he had to prepare for another chapter in his life. Yohannes came to the Netherlands without his family. The family had to wait for two years in Eritrea. He is a barber who has had to do military service in his country for eight years. Every two years, Yohannes has had only one month to see your beloved ones. Yohannes was planning to work and live in Amsterdam. Nevertheless, getting a job in the city was impossible to be on time before naming Hoorn as the municipality to live in after leaving the asylum seekers centre. Building Yoannes’ career as a barber in the Netherlands was another big challenge, because he discovered that he has heart problems. Accordingly, he had to reduce his working hours to eight per week. For Yohannes, there are tremendous differences between the Netherlands and Eritrea. But the most important one is enjoying having a safe life in Holland. Yohannes explains: “I miss Eritrea and my family there. However, I could reunite and live with my wife and children here. My kids can go to school and build their future in this country.”

The Syrian and Circassian Marlina Oghorli (29) fled from the civil war in Syria and set foot in the Netherlands two-and-a-half years ago. “My Circassian ancestors from Russia came to Syria in 1867 to start over. I had to do the same when I decided to leave Syria. Knowing that they had followed their hearts made it easier for me to follow mine and to do the same,” Marlina says. She fled to Turkey, but after living there for five years Marlina found out that she couldn’t pursue her dreams and decided to seek asylum in the Netherlands. Here she was confronted with the harsh reality of having to start from scratch: “I was determined to stay here, because I wanted to live in peace. So I decided to move from one asylum-seeker center to the other until I got a residence permit.” Right now, Marlina lives with ten girls: “It is never quiet at home which can be hard, but it is also very nice to have so many roommates because they help me to understand the Dutch language and to see the country from the Dutch perspective.” With all her patience and willpower, Marlina wants to start studying ICT as soon as possible and hopes to live a peaceful life without the threat of war. 

Manuel Bessa (53) was reborn twice: once when he fled from Angola to Portugal and the second time when he moved to the Netherlands. Manuel left Angola with his family when he was only seven years old. In 1975, the Angolan militias issued an ultimatum to force his family to leave Angola, which has been in civil war after gaining independence from Portugal. Manuel explains: “When I was a child, I did not understand why I had to leave. The sound of bombs was louder than anything else.” Life in Portugal was hard. “People treated us like refugees,” Manuel says, “It was difficult for a refugee like me to obtain a high school diploma.” When Manuel moved to the Netherlands 26 years ago, life provided him with a new challenging rebirth: “It was not easy. I have had to learn the language, follow a study programme, and know the rules.” For many years, Manuel worked as a chef. Nowadays, he works as a mechanic. Manuel has a Dutch partner and two children. The family lives in Amsterdam. For him, the city is unique: “People here accept you the way you are. I want only to be treated like a human.”