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What About School? Shame and Pride in Immigrant Families, as Shown on the Example of Education in the Netherlands

As we walked into a comfortable and inviting room filled with the scent of jasmine, a group of young Moroccan girls welcomed us. According to traditional custom, we took off our shoes at the door, and a vibrant and lively talk soon commenced. We immediately engaged in very interesting conversation with the girls, who were more than willing to share their stories and experiences with us. We were pleasantly surprised to find that no subject was taboo for them, as they made clear to us as our conversation took interesting twists and turns that evening.  We gathered around a big table; one of the girls had prepared a delicious meal and served it on a round plate. All of us ate from that same plate even though we did not know each other. As we shared dishes and food, an intimate atmosphere and a sense of confidence was quickly established among us, which made it easier to present them with our research topic, a daunting subject we hoped would not intimidate them too much. Of course, no amount of comfort and intimacy from a shared table entirely negates the difficulty of speaking about shame and pride in relation to one’s education and how one’s parents deal with it. Surprisingly, though, our hosts found it rather humorous to recall the various experiences they had in school while acting as interpreters between their parents and teachers One of them told us how she translated to her father throughout the whole year, presenting herself as one of the best pupils even though she had to repeat the year. When he found out, he was quite furious thinking that the school and teachers were discriminating his daughter because she had a Moroccan background He was even more furious when he found out that it was his daughter who had deceived him. “He was so happy when I would tell him that I am doing well at school, which is why I found it so difficult to tell him the truth,” she told us. She simply wanted to make her father proud. 

When the first large immigrant group started arriving in the Netherlands, no one really suspected that they would become such a vital part of Dutch society, not even the migrants themselves. They were guest-workers from Turkey and Morocco who regarded their stay in the Netherlands as a temporary stage of their life. That is why the dream of returning home was something that gave them both hope and strength to deal with the new reality they were facing. In most cases, however, these immigrants’ lives have not followed the courses they originally imagined. There were numerous reasons why many of them decided to stay here and build a new life, start new families, or bring over their families from back home. But they never stopped yearning and dreaming of their homeland. “A lot of migrant families are bound through their children to the country of arrival and still remain with their heads in the countries of departure, which creates a problem that cannot be underestimated,” noted Paul Scheffer, the Dutch authority on the multicultural society and author of the well-known essay The Multicultural Drama.  These individuals belong to the so-called “first generation” of immigrants. Their children and grandchildren, or the “second or third generations”, were born in the Netherlands; they speak the language and go to Dutch schools. Nowadays, we often witness the clash of these two generations. The first often clings to traditional values and the culture they brought from the countries where they were born, while the latter, being more integrated in the Dutch society, has accepted more liberal views. The occurrence of this phenomenon is quite understandable since the ethnic, religious and cultural background of immigrant parents differs in many aspects from the very open and liberal Dutch society in which they raise their children. Examples from education also shed light on this generational clash.

Veysel, a young man of Turkish descent, whose father arrived in the Netherlands with the first wave of immigrants, has a lot to say on these issues. He managed to complete all levels of high school education and enroll in a university. His parents were very supportive and they encouraged him to pursue his studies. When asked whether they could understand what he was actually learning about, however, he said: “They had just a vague idea about what school actually was.” He admits that very often he prefers not to tell them things, simply because he knows that they cannot understand and share his views and because he does not want to expose them to situations in which they might feel uncomfortable. He also does not want other people to scrutinize his parents and to embarrass them due to their lack of local knowledge. The fact that they were unable to receive education themselves contributes significantly to their lack of ability to understand their son’s education.  Their dearth of understanding about their son’s education, then, leads to his hesitation to share everything with his parents. In this vicious circle of respect, ignorance, and shame, children very often become alienated from their parents and vice versa. What can be done about this?

As the example of Veysel shows, school is still an abstract notion for a lot of immigrant parents. The Moroccan mosque, Nour, is one of the two mosques in the Dutch city of Gouda. Board members of the mosque realized that they should offer services to both parents and their children in the form of classes to help local families with homework and other educational-related issues. In cooperation with the RJC/Het Woonhuis (Dutch Youth Care Foundation) they tried to make children’s education more accessible to their parents and to facilitate a better understanding of educational issues in order to enhance and make easier the education of their children. The project turned out to be a very successful model of cooperation between a religious and social organization. Even though it took place ten years ago, it can still be regarded as a valuable example for organizations dealing with similar issues. They organized parent-teacher meetings and school days for parents where they would spend a whole day at school playing the role of pupils and experiencing how it actually is to be a student. For many, it was their first time sitting in a classroom. 

We spoke with Hielkje Dijk, a coordinator of the project who currently works for foundation Vangnet, coordinating talking sessions for young, female second-generation immigrants on the problems and dilemmas they encounter in daily life. We also talked to Martijn de Koning an anthropologist working for the research center ISIM, the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World in Leiden, who also worked as a coordinator of the project at the Nour mosque. Different frames of reference for children and parents can create barriers between them in daily life. In order to stimulate a greater participation of parents in the educational process of their children, the project tried to connect these two different worlds in a context very well-known to the parents - the mosque. This reduced the level of suspicion against the project. “It is very important to point out that we got access to families through the mosque,” Hielkje told us. “The people in the mosque were key figures in our project. They encouraged the parents to gain confidence in our good intentions.” As a Youth Care organization, Woonhuis had worked with marginalized families before, but mostly only with youngsters who came to the organization to find comfort and search for help if they needed it. “When the Nour mosque asked us to organize conversation sessions, we realized that it was a good opportunity to help youngsters in this way too, because we could reach both the youngsters and their families. In our experience, it is very difficult to deal with the problems that youngsters encounter if they are isolated from their families and if there is no dialogue between them. In the Netherlands, this was a common practice - approaching children separately from their parents, thinking that it was the right way to help them. In certain cases young people were even assisted in leaving their homes,” Hielkje noted. Martijn mentioned another important issue, namely that some parents who never went to school themselves do not actually know what kind of institution it is. “One mother told me that she thought that children in schools only play, because that is what she had seen on television, and that is one of the reasons why they cannot imagine themselves in the position of their children”, Hielkje noted. 

The tendency to separate the reality they experience at school and the one at home is another side-effect of the parents’ inability to comprehend the connection between these two worlds. “Bringing these worlds together can cause pain, disappointment, shame and confusion for both parties” she continues. “To solve the problem of school being an abstract notion, we (Woonhuis in cooperation with the Nour mosque) once organized a special day for fathers to come to Mavo school and stay in a real classroom, with real teachers who were giving lessons.” It gave them more confidence because they could tell their children “Now I can understand better” or “I have been at school too” which can enhance the conversation. 

One of the girls we met recalled her father’s perception of school: “He didn’t really know much about my school, but grades were very important to him, especially because I did very well at school. I always informed him when evenings for parents were organized, but he never attended them because he considered these evenings to be parties where parents and teachers would meet and have fun. He did not see the point. On the other hand, he considered individual conversations with teachers very important, especially when I would get my grades.” She told us that it was only a few years ago that her father realized the importance of school. “He used to think that school was not important for girls because they would eventually get married and have children and a household to take care of, but now he sees how important education is in the life of every woman, how it offers career chances and opportunities. I think the fact that we talk to him a lot has influenced his opinion about school and education in general and has made him more aware of its importance.” We also asked her if her father would agree to receive us in their home, but he refused. “People came a lot to our place,” she explained, “people from the social services came to examine the living conditions in our house so many times that he simply lost confidence in their good intentions. He doesn’t trust ‘the Dutch’ anymore.”

It is quite common for either parents or children to escape into a more distant and isolated world, away from society or even from each other precisely because they fail to understand whatever it is from which they are attempting to isolate themselves. Parents are ashamed because of their inability to comprehend the Dutch language, culture, or educational system, while children may escape into another world because they suffer from their parents’ lack of understanding, or they themselves do not understand the world from which their parents came. “I feel that my life is fragmentized,” Veysel told us, explaining that there are certain things he simply cannot discuss with his parents and that is why he prefers to keep them to himself. This leads to the formation of two realities, one at his parents’ home and one in the outside world. The facts that he respects certain cultural and traditional values cherished by his family and that he does not want to disappoint them or hurt their feelings are some of the reasons why he, for example, does not tell his parents about his Dutch girlfriend. It is not easy, but it is certainly easier.

The isolation and invisibility of immigrant parents fascinated the Dutch journalist Margalith Kleijweg and inspired her to go on an ‘anthropological journey,’ speaking to schoolchildren of the Calvijn met Junior college in the Slotervaart area in Amsterdam, a relatively poor neighborhood. She visited their parents and explored the reasons why their presence is negligible in the lives and educational process of their children (Her findings are described in the book Invisible Parents.). Three years later, she still clearly remembers how surprised she was to find out that in many of the houses she visited, no Dutch person had set foot before her. “I think that shame is one of the reasons why people isolate themselves from the society they live in,” she told us on the phone. “Maybe this isolated environment appears to be to be safe and nice for them, but it has quite a negative effect on their children,” she added. Margalith also pointed out that it is vital to understand that despite the gap between immigrant parents and their children (some parents do not even know where the school of their children is located) a certain number of these youngsters still manage to achieve success on an academic and professional level. “This lack of understanding has a particularly great impact on boys because they need to identify with their father and a lot of them see their father as a failure. Only when they become successful members of society, are they able to overcome this burden.” Still, even if they overcome the shame of their parents but they choose to stay in their fragmented worlds and realities, there will be no connection and possibility to bridge the communication gap with their parents. It is not of much help if they feel pride but continue to exclude parents from certain parts of their lives. Margalith also gave an example from when a group of youngsters were causing a lot of distress and incidents on the streets of Amsterdam a few years ago. Feeling panic and despair, the police invaded the houses of seven youngsters and their families. The mothers were appalled by this act and decided to file complains with the district council. This was the first time these families had come out of their safe but isolated shelters and rejected passivity in order to fight against what they perceived as an assault on their dignity. Even though the police action was anything but a productive affair, it had one positive result: it “forced” these women to come out of their isolation.  We need to work more on this goal, but through non-violent means.

Related to this point, it is important to refer to the talk entitled “On Education” held this year by philosopher and theologian Tariq Ramadan, in which he addressed possible causes and solutions to the problems faced by parents, children, and teachers due to a common lack of communication and understanding. The Gouda project can be regarded as the practical application of the principles Tariq Ramadan advocates. He promotes the involvement of parents, teachers and children and stresses that teachers sometimes fail to understand the norms or the culture of the parents which results in misunderstandings and a “communication gap.” Very often the world the teachers live in is quite different from that of the pupils and their families. “The school must know more about the cultural environments of its students and parents. It is not only about knowledge, but also about being able to apply it psychologically,” Ramadan said during a debate in Rotterdam.  Martijn, from the project at the Nour mosque, would confirm that such programs do indeed make a difference. “I met a father last week, and even though the project was realized 10 years ago, he still recalls it very well and the positive effect it had on him,” he told us, adding that “there were people in the community who were critical about the use of the mosque, a religious house, for homework assistance. But the board members in the mosque always supported us and kept the criticism at bay.” 

Ramadan specifically emphasizes the importance of parent involvement in schools. He suggests that schools should organize more events for parents and that the first generation can serve as interpreters if necessary. This brings up another important obstacle: the language barrier. “Speaking Dutch means freedom. Without a language, there is no freedom,” Tariq Ramadan argues. If parents know the language their sense of shame is greatly reduced, and they can come out of their isolation and be able to understand and help their children.

Tariq Ramadan also brought up the presence or absence of role models. “Young people can be motivated by showing them examples of other young people who have succeeded in climbing the social ladder in various fields. And they have done all of this without having been forced to renounce or hide their origin or identity.” Success stories exist but they are underrepresented and as such they cannot serve as inspiration and motivation to other young people who perhaps do not have the courage to fight for success. We can name two of these success stories. The first is Veysel, whom we already talked about, and the second is Cihan, an HIA fellow also of Turkish descent. Both of these young men have been able to obtain higher education and gain the deep respect of their families and communities. They are both still very proud of their parents. “Even though my parents cannot boast of having a high education, they came to the Netherlands and managed to create a good living for themselves and for us, their children. That is why I will always be proud of them,” Veysel tells us. Cihan also speaks of his mother with great pride, noting that she worked full time, took care of the household and raised three children. 
We believe that pride and shame play an important role in the lives of immigrant families. We have attempted to explain what we, as a society, but also as individuals, can do to help them overcome problems that cause shame, isolation, and feelings of exclusion. This is not an easy undertaking and it demands the involvement of the entire Dutch society, as well as the willingness to learn more about the culture and the traditions of the immigrant groups, (and as vice-versa). Cultural diversity is a fact in the Netherlands, along with its positive and negative consequences. Still, it is a fact and it should be thought of as such.

“Where do feelings of distrust, prejudices and discomfort in our society come from? Until you know  how these mechanisms work, it is impossible to bring about an effective education and a positive realization and interpretation of the sense of belonging.” (Tariq Ramadan) 


Anonymous, June 26, 2008 
Anonymous, June 26, 2008 
Anonymous, June 26, 2008 
Anonymous, June 28, 2008 
Margalith Kleijwegt June 26 2008 (telephone interview) 
Hielkje Dijk, June 29, 2008 
Veysel Yuce, June 29, 2008
Chihan Tekeli , June 30, 2008 
Martijn de Koning, June 31, 2008 (telephone interview)
Articles from several newspapers and websites 
E. Bartels (2002) Interculturele hulpverlening: het concept cultuur in Sociale Interventie vol 1 p.14-22 
Margalith Kleijwegt (2005) Onzichtbare ouders, De buurt van Mohammed B.
Paul Scheffer (2007) Het Land van aankomst (The Country of Arrival)
Tariq Ramadan. On Education: Tariq Ramadan’s first report in Rotterdam http://www.tariqramadan.com/spip.php?article1441 

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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2008


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