From the quest of safety to the tussle of creating a better future

A chronicle of a refugee

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of Shark”. This excerpt from the words of a famous Kenyan born Somali poet, writer and educator, Warsan Shire, sums up the agonizing nature of the life of a refugee. Leaving your family, friends, culture and other aspects of your life and looking for a safety is not a sweet challenge to experience. It is rather a bitter and limited choice to endure.

In many ways, my life journey as refugee is not different from that of many fellow Eritreans. The harsh dictatorship in this small country prompted me to search a safe haven elsewhere. For all my loyalty and efforts to serve my country, there were not too many things to cheer with optimism. Life was always shadowed with immense fear, insecurity and hopelessness. In Eritrea, it is a day dreaming to exercise freedom of speech, media freedom or any other freedoms. The extrajudicial penalty by the Government’s security apparatus even make you feel unsure what is right or wrong. We were deprived of our basic rights as citizens. The little pocket money we received every month was nowhere enough to buy a cheap pair of shoes, let alone to sustain your life. All these factors and myriad others made life in Eritrea unpleasant.

When I made my way to the Netherlands successfully, I was sandwiched between two contrasting feelings. On the one hand, I was relieved to be in a place where I can guarantee myself security; and claim my rights via proper legal and constitutional structure. On the other hand, the fact that I had to go through a series of lengthy asylum procedure, I had to be optimistic and patient. After all, it would be naïve to take for granted that my asylum request would be always in my favor. I had to be mentally prepared to deal with the decision of the Dutch immigration department (IND). That is why, the couple of months I waited were nervy and seemed longer than they actually were. Thanks God, I was lucky to receive a five year residence permit. I cannot explain the relief I felt.

The next step was the long process of integration to the Dutch life style ahead of me. Until I receive a house where I was going to settle in, I had to stay in a temporary shelter along with other asylum seekers from other countries. I had to mutually coexist with them. I had to deal with different personalities and behaviors. At the same time, I had to manage my own behavior to avoid offending others. Fortunately, I hardly had any falling out with anybody. As part of this integration, I was following a Dutch language course. In the meantime, I was awaiting for my house in the municipality of Haarlem. The waiting time was pretty longer than expected. But I had to accept it. Helping fellow Eritrean refugees with translation was my favorite routine activity.

Amanuel and his colleagues working at Travis Foundation. 

Despite my sheer excitement for receiving residence permit, life in the camp was not always an icing on the cake. The setbacks and frustrations I endured are worth mentioning. A lengthy and severe liver failure almost cost my life. Praise be to God and the medical staff of the Groningen hospital, I survived the unprecedented scare. Besides this, the fact that the shelter is located in a very distant village along the border with Germany; hampered me from discovering new opportunities and making contacts as much as I wanted. The monotony of my daily life was also boring. Nevertheless, I strived very hard to make the better of everything that I came across with. Finally, my nine months stay in the camp was over. I moved to my new apartment in Haarlem.

Up on my arrival in this old, beautiful and iconic city, I embarked on to lay the foundation for my future. As a preliminary step, I furnished my new apartment in a way I would feel at home. After that, finding the right language institute was of paramount importance. In this country, learning the Dutch language is the key to most things; if not everything. First and foremost, it is a way of finding better job and educational opportunities. Besides this, learning the Dutch language is the main catalyst for integrating new refugees in the Dutch community where they live in. furthermore, acquiring a Dutch language Diploma is a requirement for naturalization and citizenship.

The life process of a refugee is continuous. Your ultimate goal in sight is to be integrated in to your new environment and stimulating yourself to feel at home. However, this does not happen overnight. You have to get rid of all the traumas accumulated in your mind. You have to challenge yourself as well to embrace new ways of life. Most importantly, overcoming cultural shock makes the track of your life even smoother. In this respect; unlike many other Eritrean refugees, who endured a dreadful time to cope up with the new environment; my inherent communication skill and relatively higher level of educational background paved the way for me to settle in. To the extent of my capacity, I worked on to keep my composure and self confidence to build a better future. I utilized my communication skill to make friends and networks. Subsequently, my Dutch language fluency was improved. Besides this, I also got the opportunity to exercise my profession when I got a one year internship in the communication department of the Haarlem municipality. Via this opportunity, I had my first real taste of the Dutch work tradition and professionalism.

However, it does not mean that my life process as a refugee has always been a green pasture. Still a lot of valleys and hills are awaiting me before I can confidently say my life goals are achieved. Although I am able speak the Dutch language, my level of fluency is not sufficient enough to lock horn with the natives in terms job and educational opportunities. Especially for someone like me who studied Journalism and Mass communication, speaking the language at the highest level is the main way of sneaking in to the highly competitive job market in the Netherlands. Very often, I convince myself to accept that I am a refugee, and have to be realistic in setting goals. I know I should not be driven by emotion to think ‘I am this person and have to do this’. If I realize that there is little chance to achieve something in my preferred field, why wouldn’t I ‘turn other stones’ to try my luck. After all, I should not forget that I survived ‘the scare in the mouth of a big shark’ to be where I am. Other things are secondary.

Amanuel Mehari Gebregziabher

Rotterdam, 2018