Trust, the country and its people

*This blog is written in English so it could be checked & interpreted by the story teller who speaks just a little bit of Dutch.

It’s 11 AM and Nasir’s nose is almost up against the window as he waits for Michael (22) * to arrive at our jongLAB building on the Waalkade. A few minutes later, a dark-skinned boy walks up to the door, holding his cap in his hand. He looks nothing like how I would imagine an asylum seeker to be, wearing sneakers with snow white soles, a sporty shirt that says ‘sinner’ and a big gold coloured watch.

After Michael shakes everyone’s hand with a huge smile on his face, we decide to sit outside — the weather is warm and sunny. Michael and Nasir already know one another because of Nasir’s work for an asylum seekers’ centre; he does theatresports with the refugees, and last week Michael joined one of his theatre matches. Jos tells the young man that everything he says is safe with us, and that we will not publish anything he says without his permission. Michael smiles again, and then starts to tell us his story.

Case closed

“I grew up in Somalia*, but had to leave when I was 18. I don’t want to tell you what happened, but I can say that I can never go back there. I kinda got on a plane and landed here, in the Netherlands.” Like every asylum seeker, Michael got transferred to an asylum seekers’ centre (asielzoekerscentrum, AZC) as he waited for a residence permit. For almost three years, he lived in the AZC. He had a room to himself, but no daily routine because 1) he was older than 18 and thus too old to have the right to go to school, and 2) he still had no residence permit and therefore wasn’t allowed to work either. Nasir’s theatreports projects offered him a bit of distraction, and made him get in touch with other asylum seekers more easily.

After three years, Michael’s case was closed. His demand for a residence permit was rejected, and he was asked to leave the country to go back to Somalia. “If I go back, I’ll be killed”, Michael tells us. “That’s why they told me to go back to another part of Somalia. But IND knows nothing about my country, it is not like Holland. Somalia is so big, and there are so many different tribes. I don’t even speak their languages, and no one of my own tribe lives in other parts of Somalia. I just won’t fit in. I tell them everytime, but then they ask for proof that people get killed. And of course, I can’t give them that.” Now, Michael lives out on the streets. At night, he is allowed to sleep in the night shelter, where he gets in around 8 PM to have dinner and has to leave around 10 AM after he had breakfast (the Dutch ‘Bed, bad en brood’ regulation, ‘bed, bath and bread’). Furthermore, he spends time at the library and volunteers at Stichting Gast one day a week, where he gets a little money for the day’s work: €10,-. That means, in the best case scenario, Michael lives off €40,- a month.

“A normal day is a boring day. I don’t have any money, and sometimes I just hang around and wait until I can go back to the night shelter again.” Stichting Gast helps some refugees by giving them a room and trying to reopen their case on a residence permit, but Michael’s case has no chance of being reopened. This means he is forced to either go back to Somalia or hang out on the streets, without any money. At the night shelter, he lives with 4 other people. They eat together, but the Dutch food is strange and sometimes he goes to bed without eating. There is no TV, no internet (and you have to pay for that at the library), and they all sleep in the same room. But according to Michael, it is still better than having no ‘bed, bath and bread’ at all.

“Going to school would be a dream come true”

Without any future perspective, it is hard to stay positive. Michael wants to go to acting school, but he is not allowed to. Nasir: “It is terrible! He is very positive though, but it is so difficult to cope with this situation. His dream is to study, and I want to help him, but it is not easy. I hope that he can go to school somewhere. If you start studying, you get a bigger chance to stay. He needs to show that he is active in a positive way.” That sounds logical, but is going to school ever going to be a reality for Michael? It seems that we need to find someone working at a school that lets him attend classes under the radar —while he is not allowed to be there and not paying for the study. From there, he might have a chance to get help from UAF, an organisation that encourages refugees to explore their talent and abilities in the Dutch education system. But nobody knows if this will eventually work out. “Going to school would be a dream come true. I don’t even have to study theatre, I can do whatever as long as I can just go to school. When you’re alone, you don’t have anything and you start to develop depressing feelings. You need something to work for. I also try to talk to Gast to help me with school.”

Even though Michael is going through rough times, he smiles at us again. “For now, I start accepting my situation. Everything happens for a reason, and life is full of surprises. God knows my life, he knows my problems, and he’ll make a way. Maybe not tomorrow, but another time. I’m not mad at him, I’m here in Holland because of him. One time, my flight back to Somalia was even cancelled. I know for sure that God helps me.”

We ask Michael if he’s still in touch with his parents. At first, he tells us that they live in a small village and don’t have a good telephone, but then he changes his mind: “As African people, we have paradise expectations of Europe. My parents probably think I’m okay. I better not talk to them and tell them about my situation, because they’ll start to worry about me. I choose not to have any contact. If my life gets better, I’ll call them.”

A life in two parts

Seeing this young man of only 22, full of life, wanting to fulfil his dreams but being held back by a piece of paper makes me feel sad and combative. Michael seems ‘trapped’; as the Dutch government doesn’t give him a permit, they implicitly also withhold him from the right to travel to other European countries, and to participate in society in a relevant way. It’s like they’re telling him: “We’re not helping you anymore, we’re asking you to leave — but if you choose not to, you can’t go anywhere else but here.” Michael: “If I could, I would try it somewhere else. I think I could get the right to stay in other countries, the Netherlands have very strict laws. It’s hard to get papers. But I won’t give up, I’ve had more difficult times before. I can walk around on the street, and at least no one’s asking any questions.”

At the end of our conversation, Nasir’s asking Michael to reflect on what we spoke about in one sentence. Of course, that’s difficult. But Michael manages to come up with the following: “I see my life in two parts. The past was bad, and now anytime my life can be better. I’m not giving up yet. The life I live in the Netherlands is really difficult but I think it will make me a better person in the future. I have no trust in your country, but I do have trust in your people.”

To try and make a little change in Michael’s daily life, Jos and I will ask our colleagues from Jimmy’s if Michael can join them, as well as some other organisations in Nijmegen. I will also call my friend, who’s a theatre director, to see if she knows a theatre group that Michael can play in. And for now, I sincerely hope that although the country did, people are not letting Michael down.

*Names and places have been anonymised to protect Michaels’ privacy.