Making Changes to an Impersonal Refugee System

An interview with Saskia Harkema, founder of Faces of Change.

UTRECHT – Faces of Change, set up by activist Saskia Harkema, works for and with refugees to provide them with education, coaching, and business opportunities. Saskia felt there was a need for such an organisation after her many encounters with the impersonality of the European, and more specifically the Dutch refugee system. ‘Being a refugee has a huge impact on one’s own life, and at the same time it creates confrontation in Europe.’ She used her abilities as an academic to empower and coach refugees through the complicated institutions on which they are dependent for residence.

At the time you set up Faces of Change, did you feel that not enough was being done?

‘I was coaching individuals through the Dutch refugee system and I was shocked when dealing with certain organisations. People are often reduced to numbers, and if their case is complicated they are told to “come back tomorrow.” Sometimes it took a lot of persistence for me even to get people highly necessary medical assistance, as generally nobody challenges the system.’

Is that because most people working in refugee-concerned institutions are part of a very large machine?

‘That is an excuse they hide behind. This is an example of division of labour in optima forma, as nobody takes responsibility. People must learn to use their moral judgment, but every time it is a battle.’

Ali chips in, ‘I have learnt not to take the automated e-mails personally, but it is hard to realise that a system only barely sees you as a worthy human.’

What have been some problems you have encountered whilst dealing with COA?

‘One time we were visiting a friend in a refugee camp, and they did not appreciate us attempting to film in their buildings. We were told we were not allowed to go there, and that we would be reported. The rationale behind was shown by the almost comical respone: “how do I know you are not from IS?”’

Saskia has found that individual coaching of refugees is demanding, but she says is crucial. ‘They learn from us, and we learn from them: we need each other.’ She is sceptical when it comes to European politics concerning displaced people. ‘Countries often say they are working on it, or discussing it, but the lack of actual action overall is disgusting.’ She turns to Ali, however, to have him confirm her view that there are certainly exceptions to this. The city of Utrecht tries to ensure student housing where possible for refugees to stay, and put them in contact with their neighbours so they can integrate and learn Dutch more easily.’

In the current environment, how difficult is it to create a dialogue with refugees? What sort of bureaucratic or other problems do you run into?

‘Some measures that attempt integration have left me speechless. For example, refugees will simply be told to “learn Dutch.” Of course this is a good idea, but learning Dutch is not a goal in and of itself, it is a means to an end.’

In what ways can Dutch people learn from refugees?

‘There are two main ways in which we can do this. First, displaced people mirror us in a very personal way. Whereas we have many possessions to hide behind, refugees have almost nothing when they arrive. I learned so much, especially in the way many daily things we find important are actually irrelevant in comparison to family and friends. Second is of course that in refugees, both adults and childres, you can see resilience, courage, and leadership that continues to amaze.’

Saskia Harkema, founder of refugee charity “Faces of Change”.

What would you say to Dutch people saying that they also have it hard, and that the government focuses too much on refugees instead of them?

‘It is a bad comparison, in which these people use refugees as a scapegoat. The issue at hand was not caused by refugees, but is an older underlying governmental problem. However, we must take people with this opinion seriously: fear of something causes resistance.

To show how shallow this fear is once people get to know on another, I once organised for a group of ten Syrian families to go spend time with Dutch families in a small town. This was a town where people had recently protested against a new refugee camp in the area. Afterwards what I heard from the Dutch families the most was “they are just like us!” This was a great opportunity to show people the similarities. The families spent a lot of time talking, and many are still in contact with each other.’

Is becoming integrated in the community also the refugees’ responsibility?

‘Yes, but you need to allow them to be useful and you should stimulate them! Ali was told simply to “go to the city and meet people.” We can laugh at it now, but it is a Kafkaesque situation.’

Faces of Change is working on an interactive web documentary, Diary of Two Activists. How far in the process of the documentary are you at this point?

‘We have a great deal of footage, and there are enough experts involved in terms social media and film, but we need funds to realise the rest of the project. The people working on this are driven and passionate and deserve support for their efforts. We are far enough that Faces of Change could present the documentary trailer at the recent World Humanitarian Summit, where it was well-received. At this stage the speed with which we can finish the project depends very much on the availability of funds.’

What is your main goal with it?

‘We aim to show people that even though the differences in this world are always talked about, we actually have so much in common with people like refugees. People are quick to judge that we don’t understand each other, but every single person shares similar concerns about their family and their working lives. So why should we focus on things that set us apart?’

What has been the response to the project so far?

‘We have been told that it is touching, and above all confrontational. We appeal to the individual, not just to politicians, and we want to show that everyone can do something.’

This is the second part of our series on Faces of Change and the refugee question. The first part can be read here. Keep reading for an interview with Ali Taifour, brought to you tomorrow by IM International.

If you would like to meet our editors and the people behind Faces of Change, make sure to come to The Hague tomorrow at 19:00 for an informal session with drinks and music. We hope to see you there!

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