Text: Linda van der Nat
The refugee crisis is a big issue in the Netherlands at the moment. Marit de Looijer and Renee Middendorp took their concern one step further. For their Master’s theses they went to Lebanon and to the Spanish enclave of Melilla, where they saw the lives of refugees from close quarters. ‘I often felt guilty.’
There are 53 Syrian families living in the olive orchard of Lebanese brothers Ali and Omar. They fled civil-war-torn Syrian three years ago and now live in an improvised tented camp under the trees. The brothers’ hospitality costs them a source of income but they see it as their duty to help the Syrians. They built showers and toilets, and provide water and occasionally food.
Ali and Omar’s tented camp was one of the nine refugee settlements that Master’s student Marit de Looijer visited for her final research project. She wanted to know how refugees and host communities negotiate with each other about a place to live, since there are no official refugee camps. ‘The government does not want any more refugee camps because they are afraid of them becoming breeding grounds for terrorism. Lebanon has taken in far the largest number of refugees per head of its population. That puts a lot of pressure on the country, which is extremely divided religiously, politically and socially.’
The lack of facilities has not stopped more than a million Syrians from seeking refuge in this unstable country. There are now a total of nearly two million refugees in Lebanon, which has a population of 4.5 million. The refugees now coming into Lebanon live in rented rooms, in the shells of unfinished buildings, in garages, in settlements they build themselves and in tented camps such as that of the brothers Ali and Omar. ‘Whether a refugee is allowed to live somewhere gets decided based on who you are, who you know, what you believe and what you own. The negotiations about it are very complex and emotional. That was a reason for me to come to the country,’ says the student of International Development Studies. ‘I thought it would be super-interesting to research how that works.’
Renee Middendorp, another Master’s student of International Development Studies, left in May last year for Melilla, a little patch of Spanish territory in north-western Morocco, to do research for her final thesis. She wanted to give the refugees there a face: the economic refugees from West Africa, young lads from the poor parts of Algeria and Morocco, and Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe and a better future via this small enclave of Spain.
Melilla is a strange place,’ says Renee. ‘A patch of European territory of 12 square kilometres with a harbour and a six-metre fence all around it. There are both physical and symbolic borders and I studied the role these borders play in the daily lives of people in Melilla, in the context of the refugee debate and migration policy.’ To this end she talked not only to refugees and migrants but also to aid workers, police officers and border patrol guards. ‘It taught me that there are several sides to a story and that everyone is affected by living with that border, albeit in very different ways.’
Renee and Marit both immersed themselves in local life. For Marit that was essential, she says. ‘It is naïve to think that you can do your work properly in Lebanon without a social network. You need to make friends and forge connections so people know what you are up to and feel responsible for you.’ Renee stayed in a house where a local activist was living as well. She helped street children from Morocco and Algeria and put Renee in touch with the boys who used the harbour to get to Europe illegally by boat. ‘There are hundreds of boys throughout the town, many of whom have been living on the streets for years. In the evenings they gather in the alleys of the old town, close to the harbour. It’s a bit higher, giving them a good view of the harbour and of the police. Every evening they try to climb onto the last boat to Malaga.’
It was a surreal experience. ‘I sat with a group of 15 lads between 12 and 18 years old. In that alley they were waiting for the last boat, chatting and making music. There was a friendly atmosphere, almost a jolly one, and yet those boys’ lives are very tough. They get discriminated against, ignored and threatened. The Guardia Civil doesn’t know what to do with these boys and that often gets expressed in bullying and violence. The police shave the boys’ heads or steal their shoes. I have seen a lot of scars from cuts, too, probably from police violence.
By choosing refugees as their topic of research, the students have not exactly made things easy for themselves. Marit: ‘I am quite an emotional person; I can burst into tears because of something on the news. But I know that if I get emotional I can’t listen well and I can’t ask the right questions.’ So when she was with the refugees she managed to maintain a scientific, objective attitude. ‘I really told myself, you are here now and you have a task. You are not here just to drink coffee, you’ve got to obtain information and analyse it. But after my visit to Ali and Omar’s olive orchard, I did cry in the bus back to Beirut. It was raining, it was cold and those men, women and children there had bare feet. Their whole situation was so hopeless.’
In the weblog she kept during her stay in Melilla, Renee writes about two boys of 12 and 14 whom she put up for a night. ‘Even though we have enough beds, they are lying sideways in one bed. I’ve always had a soft spot for sleeping people, especially children, but this sight really breaks my heart. They have few prospects, most of them have lost their parents, they feel every day how unwanted they are, the street is their only school and they have only one dream: to get to Europe. The oldest wakes up the younger one by gently stroking his head. What a tearjerker this is. I let them use the stuff in the bathroom. Off they go again, with gel in their hair and in a cloud of perfume, each carrying a donated red rucksack from some charity or other and clutching a banana and a bottle of water, my meagre donation.’
‘That whole situation was so emotional,’ says Renee. ‘I felt very strongly at that moment that these boys were much too young to be in that situation. And I felt guilty because I wanted something from them too, namely information for my research. I realized however that those were my own feelings and that they only made me turn them into ‘victims’. That certainly was not the intention behind my research.’
This was not the only time Renee felt guilty, or ashamed of her privileged position. ‘If I started to feel claustrophobic in the built-up city, I could go into the mountains for a breath of fresh air. It might take me an hour but actually I could cross the border without much difficulty. Whereas there are people who have tried to climb over that fence ten times. Sometimes that made me feel powerless to help because I couldn’t do much more for them than write about their experiences.’
Marit struggled with such feelings of powerlessness too. ‘But I was always straight with the people I talked to and I got the impression they appreciated my visits. They said: you are not the kind of journalist who just comes once. You’ve been sitting in my tent with me for nine days already, even when it rains, even when it’s cold.’
When they got home both students had a lot to come to terms with. Renee: ‘The atmosphere in Malilla is nasty; there is violence in the air there. But there is no point in getting angry about it, so you bottle it up. After I got back I kept going over the stories and events in my mind all the time. It feels strange too to be putting it all into a theoretical framework for my thesis. My desk is so far away from what is happening there.’
Marit too experienced culture shock on returning to the safe, stable Netherlands. ‘Before I left there were car bombs going off in Lebanon. UN staff drove around in armoured vehicles. I always had to be aware of what you could and couldn’t do and I listen carefully when people told me not to get out at particular bus stops. I was constantly on the alert. When I came back that was suddenly not necessary. That felt so odd. I was in a different environment but I was still in Lebanon mode.’
Marit is still in touch with a Syrian woman. ‘When I met her she was living with her family in law in a large, half-finished university building. Seven storeys high with bare concrete walls and loose electric wiring all around the building. There are 1500 people living there, half of them children. She is my age, 25. We whatsapp now and then but the connection is often bad. She is now in a reception camp on the Syrian border with her two little boys. Her situation is hopeless but every time we are in contact she asks me if she can do anything to help me with my research.’
Renee too still feels a bond with the refugees she met, even if in a less direct form. ‘I delved into migration policy and the refugee debate for my research, and I want to continue doing something practical in relation to that. I am actively involved in Vluchtelingenwerk [a Dutch refugee organization, ed.], for instance. My research has given me more insight into the reality of the refugee problem. That insight is lacking in the way the subject is talked about in the Netherlands.’
Marit find the harsh tone of the refugee debate hard to take, too. ‘I try to understand the people in the Netherlands who worry about the numbers of refugees coming here. I know that there are people in the Netherlands too who are unemployed and poor and fear for their own situations. We must consider them too.’ But, she adds, ‘in Lebanon there is real cause for concern. The country has far more refugees and is much more unstable. It is very difficult for the brothers Ali and Omar to maintain the tented camp. Their own incomes are small and are asked more and more often by their own community why they are still helping refugees. But they keep going. They say, ‘Allah has put these people on our path. Now it is up to us to be good to them.’ I hope we can be that hospitable in the Netherlands as well.’
Marit de Looijer and Renee Middendorp did their research in Lebanon and Melilla in the context of the Master’s track Disaster Studies, which focuses on the social dynamics and effects of crises and disasters. Topics covered include emergency aid, disaster risk reduction and refugee issues.
Disaster Studies is a small but growing field at the university, says assistant professor Bram Jansen of the Sociology of Development and Change chair group. He works specifically on refugee issues and supervised about 20 students last year who did their internships or final thesis research in countries such as Kenya, Sudan, Lebanon, Malta, Jordan and Turkey.
‘Disaster Studies might seem a bit out of place at this university but it actually fits perfectly within the Wageningen domain,’ says Jansen.
‘Refugee movements have an impact on communities.’ And these students’ research, says Jansen, makes an important contribution to knowledge about the trends in refugee issues.