Interview with Ali Taifour of Faces of Change.
UTRECHT – Ali Taifour is a Syrian architect, actor, and theater director who went through a lot to come to the Netherlands. He had refused to take up arms for the government, being opposed to violence as a solution. Because of this Ali was forced to travel from Aleppo to Lebanon, Turkey and many other countries before arriving here. Ali smiles. ‘I do not want to look at my troubles now; I want to finish my plans for the future.’
What was your experience once you were in the Netherlands, mainly with COA?
‘We generally knew or heard nothing, no information about our status was given to us, and we didn’t know why. It is like communicating with a wall. I had to move to seven camps in six months. I’m unlucky in that: some people I know could be housed after three camps, but many of the camps I stayed in closed shortly afterwards, meaning I had to leave them. I only stayed for longer in my second camp, which was in Eindhoven.’
How was that camp in Eindhoven? Can you tell us about your experience?
‘It was very bad. We slept with three people in a tiny room meant for two, and we could not do anything. I wanted to kill time, so I asked COA for work. I told them I could help out in a theatre, give children art lessons, and many other things. I was told ‘okay, but you have to wait,’ for about a month and a half, until finally I found myself a job cleaning a kitchen. But at least I had something to do! Otherwise, life in the camp was eat, sleep, wake, repeat.
I went to COA to ask for drawing space, because the room was so small. I was then told that “all artists draw outside, so go outside,” alongside the helpful message that I was to find my own solution. They told me simply to go “meet people in the centre of town and talk to them.” I actually did this, but how do you think it went? Telling people “hello, I am Ali, I am a refugee.” They immediately think you want money and nothing else! This made it hard to connect, as you can imagine.’
You were told by different organisations that they would help you, but they did not actually do so.
The IND (Immigration and Naturalisation Service, Dutch: Immigratie- en Naturalisatiedienst) appeared to me like the mafia. I could not understand how their rules worked. All I wanted was to talk to an actual person, but this was repeatedly refused. I asked them why I still had no status or updates whatsoever after many months, and they told me it was because my file was not being read. In the meantime, other refugees had already gotten homes assigned within half the amount of time I had spent waiting. Nobody could tell me why my file had not yet been read, they only told me “you have to wait.” I cannot do anything this way. It feels like drinking; the way life seems to sway.
I would do anything, I told people at the refugee camps so too. I wanted to go take lessons and study, but I had to wait. I wanted to learn Dutch, but I had to wait. I kept asking when I could reunite with my family like many others had been able to do, but I had to wait.
Someone from COA told me to thank God that I had been given food and a bed. At some point they told me that if I complained so much I should just go back to Syria. But when I agreed with that, I was told they could not send me back, and I had to wait.
What would you want to say to normal people in the Netherlands on this topic who are not willing to help?
‘We are here because of a war. They must think of the Second World War: many people fled to Syria as well. Syria took them in because it was war in Europe, and we are all human. The war is not my mistake; it is the government’s.’
What about people saying refugees do not want to work.
At this question there is immediate dissent from both Saskia and Ali.
Ali: ‘We do want to work. I hate getting money for doing nothing. I am 27, I have so many ideas and I can do so much. Do not give me money and tell me to wait: I am not a child, nor am I retired, and I do not want to lose the opportunities that come with the age I am now.
We discussed our love of theatre earlier today. Saskia believes the media are zooming on our differences when we are actually quite similar. How different do you believe you and I really are?
‘Not at all. In the case of art, as with many things, some like it and some do not, and that is the beauty of it. Different music in different countries, it is all art.’
Saskia adds: ‘It is universal, and we can use that.’
Ali: ‘for so long we have listened to bombs, now we need to listen to music and find our peace.’
How did you get to know Saskia and get involved with Faces of Change?
Saskia regularly taught at a camp I stayed at, and we got to know each other. I like the work she does, as she has a very human approach, and she supports me when I want to take action and do something.
Are you also a part of the development of the web documentary?
Saskia: ‘it is in the form of video diaries, shown on the website on a timeline. We are still shaping it, but Ali definitely has parts in it. In Istanbul we visited Ali’s family, and we use that too.’
Ali: ‘I now cannot see his family, there are procedural issues standing in the way of him going to Istanbul or them coming to the Netherlands.’
Saskia and Ali have been talking with students, many of whom told them their perception of refugees drastically changed as a result of the discussions they organised. They come to the realisation, as Saskia puts is, that a refugee is ‘not an abstract number, it is a person.’
This is the last part of our series on Faces of Change and the refugee question.
If you would like to meet our editors and the people behind Faces of Change, make sure to come to The Hague tonight at 19:00 for an informal session with drinks and music. We hope to see you there!
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