Locals can make the difference

Walking with refugees

PhD student Rik Huizinga wants to know how Syrian refugees make an emotional connection to a new home in a new land. He’s found a special way to do that: let them take him for a walk.
Text and photo by Megan Embry

Two Syrian refugees undergo an intake interview upon their arrival in the Netherlands. One says he likes the countryside; he longs for a quiet life and a garden of his own. The other says he loves the city and all the excitement urban living has to offer. Immigration assigns the country-lover to Groningen, where the noise and hustle makes him miserable. The city-lover is assigned to Roden, where he passes quiet days alone toiling in his garden.

The Dutch government could do a better job with the data they get from intake interviews, says Spatial Sciences PhD student Rik Huizinga. ‘We don’t actually do anything with the information, aside from make sure we haven’t invited any terrorists into the country’, he says. ‘But we should focus on what kind of education this person wants – what kind of life.’

Asking the right questions could help develop better placement procedures, he says. What emotional connections do refugees have to their new homes? How do they form those connections? Can we help them form better ones? Huizinga spent two years – and dozens of interviews with ten Syrian refugees – finding answers.

Walk together

His master thesis on the subject was awarded the Herta Macht Thesis Prize in 2017. Now he’s in the first year of a PhD and is turning a laser focus on the effects of forced migration and refugee resettlement.

The men in Huizinga’s research face real obstacles: a language barrier, exclusion, and discrimination, among other things. But don’t frame their stories with pity, he says. ‘Refugees don’t want to be seen as sad. They want to be seen as peers. And of course, most of them are really strong. They have already survived so much. They are not going to worry about some people being assholes.’

But they do struggle. On several occasions, interviewees say they feel like a burden to the country that shelters them. These men – who are all between 22 and 35 years old – are powerless to contribute much to society during their first years as refugees. It’s hard to be useless, they say.

So Huizinga uses a research method that empowers: a walking interview. The interviewee decides the route and acts as guide to his own neighborhood; Huizinga comes along as a guest and gets first-hand data on the daily life and place-attachment of Syrian refugees in Roden and Groningen.

Empty Streets

On these walks, Huizinga is often struck by a sense of desolation; the streets are abandoned. He discovers that the ‘time geographies’ of refugees and their neighbours never overlap. ‘Because they are not allowed to work or study, the refugees have a very different daily rhythm from their Dutch peers’, he says. They are at home when everyone else is at work or school.

The few Dutch residents they do encounter tend to be retirees. Some offer warm greetings. ‘But there are also people who will walk around you – or cross the street’, Huizinga says. He recalls the words of one interviewee: ‘I’m only seeing empty streets; I’m not used to this. In Syria there are always people to talk to.’

So the interviewees take him where there are people to talk to: Islamic supermarkets. Stepping into these places is like stepping into another world. ‘They are not different here; they are safe. And of course, people know Arabic. You have to imagine – the language is very loud and very full of emotion and expression; people touch each other a lot. In the Netherlands, we are a bit hesitant. But in the supermarket, twenty guys walk up to the respondent, kissing him, asking him about his mother and his family.’

It is an important place to remind each other who they are, he says. It’s a little piece of home.

The power of weak connections

Huizinga’s research suggests that one way to make refugees feel welcome is easy but easily overlooked. In everyday spaces, ‘weak connections’ like a passing greeting or a comment about the weather can go a long way.

‘Research is turning its attention to mundane places – sidewalks and stairwells – that represent normal life. In the past, researchers from dominant groups (white, male, able-bodied) have called these spaces “neutral, safe, accessible”. But we are seeing that those terms don’t represent the experience of minority groups’, Huizinga explains.

‘These everyday places are where our normal life happens’, says Huizinga. And when you make these sorts of connections with refugees you’re saying that they are part of normal life in this place. ‘It’s a confirmation that they exist and are a part of the lives of others. The fact that you are being acknowledged as a person – that alone can make you feel happy.’

‘I’m becoming one of them’

Syrian-born Palestinian and life-time refugee Ayham Najem is determined to move on. He says integration is simple. ‘Once you learn how society acts here, it’s not really different.’

Najem is a bachelor student at the RUG, but sitting at a table in Doppio he looks more like a CEO than a sophomore. He stands out from the midday coffee crowd in a crisp black suit. An overhead light illumines him from above; his white shirt and dark hair gleam. He leans away from the table, cool and self-assured. This is a guy who determines his own fate.

Najem has been in Groningen for four years. When the UK asks about the events that brought him here at nineteen, he only hits the highlights: ‘The situation was terrible. We didn’t feel safe. So we had to flee. We went to Turkey, and from there we went to Europe. My mother came here first, and we followed her.’ He doesn’t seem interested in retelling a journey now shared by so many hundreds of thousands of people. ‘It’s just memories’, he says, ‘there, or here, or anywhere – memories.’ He seems determined to move on.

Little village

When his family arrived, they were sent to an asylum centre in Bellingwolde. Najem doesn’t linger over that period either, except to say how surprised he was by the kindliness of the little village. ‘When you are on the street, they cheer you up and smile. That was different to me. In villages, it’s different than in the cities. They all know each other. There is more contact with people.’

After only five months at the asylum centre, Najem and his family were sent to Scheemda, a village near Groningen. He applied to the university immediately, but was rejected. He spent months studying Dutch, English, and mathematics before applying again. Now he is in the middle ofa BSc in artificial intelligence – the realisation of a childhood dream, he says. Will he build a super-brain to solve all our problems? He laughs, ‘Why not? I have a lot of plans.’


He’s accomplished a lot in very little time. He says integration was a piece of cake. ‘Not painful at all. Of course, you aren’t able to talk to everyone at first, because you don’t have the language’, he says, ‘but once you learn how society acts here, it’s not really different. You will integrate without any effort, actually.’

Surely it isn’t so simple? But Najem insists. ‘It’s normal. Nothing special.’ He laughs, because normal is a very Dutch thing to say. ‘See?’ He smiles again, sure of himself, and leans back in his chair. ‘I’m becoming one of them.’



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