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One Way: Forward Former Refugees and Successful Participation in the Netherlands


Becoming accepted has taken me ten years; I will not throw that away. … It’s a cliché,… but hard work is rewarded.

Davor Gasparac, Croatian refugee from Bosnia, now a Dutch citizen

In 2004, 9,782 refugees sought asylum in the Netherlands (Kok).  In previous years, the numbers climbed as high as 45,217 (in 1998).  Among the hundreds of thousands of refugees who now have made a home in the Netherlands, many of whom have acquired Dutch citizenship, how many have actually integrated successfully, especially after waiting years to obtain permanent residency status?  This question is especially pressing when one considers the small number of publicly well-known refugees who have become symbols of integration and who represent the nieuwe Nederlanders (“new Dutch”); they are a minute percentage of the refugee population of the Netherlands.  Parliament members Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Farah Karimi and journalist Martin Simek are some of those in this tiny minority who are well-known and visible public figures; their renown is evidence of their successful integration into Dutch society.  They represent a small population of refugees who have made it through months or years in asylum centers, who have found the motivation to succeed against the odds, who have managed to finish their degrees in the Netherlands and find work, and to sustain themselves and their families.  But how have they done so well – some so far as to be seen as Dutch by the Dutch (quite a feat in a country where the population is divided into autochtonen and allochtonen, or “native Dutch people” and “people of non-western immigrant descent”) – when so many other refugees have been unable to integrate on a basic level in their new country?  How do these refugees overcome the frustration of their wasted years spent in the asylum system to prove their abilities and eventually belong and participate in their adopted homeland?

Isolation in the Asylum System

Under the current policy, many refugees are held in asylum centers around the country for up to three years before they are given an official status in the Netherlands; they receive social assistance, have access to low-level Dutch language courses designed for the poorly educated, and are constantly fearful that their applications for asylum will be rejected and that they will be sent back to their home countries, which are often still dangerous or, post-conflict, in ruins.  The centers are mostly located in remote areas of the Netherlands, and asylum seekers are regularly transferred between different centers multiple times during the procedure.  They hold temporary residence permits and are not allowed to work or study in Dutch institutions.  It is understandable that morale is low.

Before and through the early 1980s, government refugee policies did not exist formally.  The Dutch government received a limited number of refugees with the help of the UNHCR.  Until they received their residence permits (a waiting period of a few months), these refugees received housing and social security, as they were not allowed to seek employment.  In 1987, a new program, Regionale Opvang Asielzoekers (Regional Reception of Asylum Seekers), or ROA, was introduced.  From that point on, asylum seekers were required to remain in asylum centers before being relocated to ROA centers around the country.  In these centers, refugees lived with other asylum seekers while waiting for their residence permits, and their living costs were financed.  Whereas most asylum seekers spent a few months in the ROA centers in the 1980s, refugees stayed in asylum centers for an average of a few years in the 1990s.  In 1994, three aanmeldcentra (registration centers) began assessing the likelihood of a given applicant’s success in the Netherlands.  Those who were approved during an inquiry (lasting less than 24 hours) were sent to asylum centers, where they awaited confirmation of their status.  In 1996, the ROA center system was terminated.  Since then, refugees have been required to remain in asylum centers until their status has been determined.

After the already long asylum procedure, those who are granted the right to remain in the Netherlands permanently (and the numbers dwindle each year) have an even longer road ahead of them: they must integrate into Dutch society. Studies measuring the success of integration among refugees often look to such indicators as proficiency in the language, participation in education and employment, contact with people of a Dutch background, and familiarity with Dutch culture.  The following three former refugees, all of them Dutch citizens today, have managed to establish lives for themselves here, exhibiting resilience and a drive to succeed on both their own terms and those of others in Dutch society.  These individuals jumped over the hurdles that most refugees encounter in the Dutch asylum system, and today feel integrated in Dutch society; on more than one account, they have “succeeded.” 

Three Profiles: Stories of Successful Participation 

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, born in 1969 in Somalia, is today a member of the Dutch Parliament.  She arrived in the Netherlands as an asylum seeker in 1992 to avoid a marriage arranged by her father.

Her father was a western educated intellectual and politician.  Hirsi Ali explained that the West was not foreign to her: “I am from an Islamic country, I am from Africa, but [I’m also familiar with the culture of] the West,” she said.  Her father was exiled because of his opposition to the government, so the family relocated first to Saudi Arabia, and then to Ethiopia and Kenya.  During these years of travel, Ayaan learned Somali, Arabic, Amharic, Swahili, and English; her knowledge of so many languages would prove useful to her study of Dutch after 1992.

At the age of 23, on her way to Canada to meet her husband-to-be, Ayaan purposely missed her connecting flight from Germany, and instead took a train to the Netherlands.  There, she applied for political asylum.  She was sent to an asylum center in Lientern, where she worked as a cleaning lady in the Riedel juice factory.  “I would rather clean than beg,” she told one interviewer (Caldwell).  During this time, she was given permission to remain in the Netherlands for an indefinite period of time (a status much more difficult to obtain today), and she worked as a translator for social service agencies helping immigrants.  Labor offices directed her to work she did not want, and she was told that a university education was not a likely possibility for her.  Unfazed, she enrolled herself in a social academy and received her degree in 1995, whereupon she continued her education in a political science program at the University of Leiden.  When she graduated, she began doing research on immigration for the Labor party, and became known for her critiques of pillarization.  In 2002, she was offered a place on the VVD parliamentary election ballot, and ended up gaining a seat when the Labor party was defeated in a landslide.  Known for her controversial film, Submission, she is now in hiding because of threats made on her life for her outspoken views on the treatment of Muslim women.  In 2004, TIME Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. 

Halleh Ghorashi

Halleh Ghorashi was raised in a secular family in Iran and became politically active at the age of 17 when the Revolution broke out in 1979.  In 1988, she came to the Netherlands as an asylum seeker and was placed in an ROA center.  

“I wanted to learn Dutch right away,” she wrote (Ghorashi 188).  “I had heard from others that the special language courses for refugees were not fast and intensive enough, so I decided to follow an intensive course at one of the universities.” These courses were too expensive, and when she called a refugee aid organization to request financial assistance, she was surprised to hear that “the level of language courses at the universities [is] too high for refugees” (188).  With the help of friends, she paid for the university-level course and, after learning quickly, was able to enroll in university with the help of the University Assistance Fund (UAF).  During her third year as an anthropology student, she was denied asylum, but responded to the decision through her lawyer. 

“When I finally got my refugee status shortly after that, I was able to find a job immediately.  I did not lose a second in the Netherlands, and this was only possible because I could move between the official lines [taking language courses and getting assistance from friends and the UAF to attend university].  And this was my salvation” (188).

Ghorashi is now a professor in the Department of Culture, Organization and Management at Free University, Amsterdam.  

“I’m transnationally-oriented.  I feel Dutch and often take part in the oranjegevoel [“orange-feeling,” a nationalistic or patriotic feeling towards the Netherlands],” she says.

Davor Gasparac

When war broke out in Bosnia in 1992, Bosnian Croat Davor Gasparac fled to Zagreb, Croatia.  There, Croatian authorities tried to draft him into the army; he left three days before they arrived at his door.  By that time, Gasparac was already in Austria. He went through Düsseldorf, Germany, and on to Eindhoven, where he was able to stay with a friend while applying for asylum.

First, his friend told him to not report to immigration police, who would retain him immediately and send him to an asylum center or possibly deport him.  Gasparac did begin his application, however, and after reporting to the authorities, he was surprised to find that they allowed him to stay at his friend’s home.

When his friend left the Netherlands, however, Gasparac was forced to go to the asylum centers. Over the next few years he was transferred from one center to the next, awaiting the decision on his status.

Regarding his arrival in the Netherlands in his thirties, he says, “I was too old to lose my identity. The young ones [refugees] will be assimilated. I integrated.” His Dutch identity was added on to his Bosnian and Croatian identities, as well as his identity as a refugee.  During this time, he felt as though he was going through an identity crisis; he was unmotivated, but notes in retrospect that he was unconsciously making an effort every day to integrate.  At a certain point, Gasparac realized that he felt Dutch, coming home one day to the apartment where he had been distinctly unhappy, but feeling a sense of “home sweet home.”

Today, Gasparac speaks fluent Dutch, holds a job, and volunteers with refugees and immigrants who have been unable to integrate as of yet.  

What defines Success?

How does one measure if refugee participation in society is successful?  Professor Ruben Gowricharn of Tilburg University questions whose standard is applied in answering that question.  In general, he warns, the witte Nederlanders (white Dutch people) define “success.”  Gowricharn prefers to recognize three definitions or assessments of “success:” first, there is the witte Nederlandse definition of success; secondly, there is the standard of “relative success” (based on an individual’s personal history); and, thirdly, success can be defined by an individual who achieves his or her goals and therefore feels fulfilled.

A person who volunteers forty hours a week in his local mosque might feel very accomplished, especially if his community regards him in the same way.  However, this definition of success and participation goes unnoticed by most white Dutch people, who look for such indicators as financial independence and contribution to “Dutch” society.  Another type of success relates to an individual’s personal history; a young Moroccan woman from the Rif Mountains who obtains an HBO education (“Higher Professional Education”) makes a relatively large advancement. Thirdly, an individual who attends university in order to become a teacher pursues purely personal goals. 

Regardless of varying definitions of “success,” refugees must learn new skills and get recognition for their foreign diplomas and job experience.  People overestimate the options available to refugees, says Gowricharn.  “When people arrive in the Netherlands,” he explains, “they enter a transitional phase.”  It takes two years to learn Dutch properly, “and those are the clever ones, because it is a difficult language.”  During that phase, the social status of refugees steadily declines.  The older refugees are in an especially grim position, since they have difficulty finding employment, and the situation becomes more problematic as the years pass.  Foreign diplomas pose a huge problem as they are not widely accepted in the Netherlands, as Gowricharn himself has experienced; his own education was even questioned after coming to the Netherlands from Suriname, a former colony.  An approved foreign diploma does not carry as much weight as its Dutch equivalent, either (a conversion system has been established by the Government).  Employers simply follow the Government’s system in these cases, and qualified applicants with foreign diplomas are left defenseless.  These hurdles exist for all refugees; only some refugees can overcome them.

What Makes the Difference?

Asylum seekers who surmount obstacles to participation are models for others, especially as refugees encounter frequent barriers.  By learning the language or gaining recognition for educational and professional training, as well as by accessing social networks and maintaining initiative, refugees can facilitate the establishment of their new lives in the Netherlands.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Halleh Ghorashi, and Davor Gasparac took a few common steps on the way to calling the Netherlands “home.”  It is important to examine how these former refugees approached certain obstacles, or how they benefited from assistance of any kind, so that refugee programs can be improved.  


To be able to participate in Dutch society, it is crucial to learn the language.  Davor Gasparac: “If you don’t speak Dutch - - I’m sorry - - but you would never become a part of it.  Never ever.”  Refugees who were unable to learn the language at the time of their arrival felt that they were at a disadvantage in the following years.  “I…immediately started to learn Dutch, because I wanted and needed to achieve some kind of security here and this is impossible without learning the language,” said Sinisa, a young Bosnian refugee (Korac 66).  Such foresight helped Sinisa to enter into a university program and obtain her degree.  However, Boris, who came to the Netherlands from Bosnia with his wife, commented, “I think that our adjustment would have been much easier if we’d been given a chance to learn the language properly immediately after our arrival.  But we were not persuaded to learn it because of the way we were received here [in the asylum center]” (Korac 65).  He continued, “We haven’t been able to get any documents [concerning our status or diploma recognition] here without enormous difficulties and that’s also why we formed some sort of negative attitude towards this society” (Korac 65).  

Overcoming “the Pitiful Refugee”

Such setbacks make it not only difficult for refugees to continue their education, but to find work or to support a family.  Gasparac says, “You have to convince people around you that you have abilities.”  Addressing the same topic, Gowricharn states, “[refugees] begin as losers and have to become winners,” implying that there is a constant need for refugees to prove themselves in a system that does not automatically recognize their achievements.  Furthermore, refugees are all too often seen as victims without agency; Taraneh, a refugee from Iran, explains, “My story is not pitiful at all. I did not want to be seen as a pitiful person. The things I did in Iran and the things I have done here are not important in their [the Dutch] eyes at all, the only way they see me is as a pitiful person…” (Ghorashi 194-195).  

An Established Network in the Netherlands

Some refugees are lucky enough to have relatives or acquaintances who can assist them once they arrive in the Netherlands.  Friends who are familiar with the system can help a refugee with a job search, accessing a language course, or finding funds to enroll in a university.  Gasparac indicated the importance of such contacts; “You need connections.  You need a mentor - - and then the door opens.”  For others, an escape from the monotony of asylum center life is also a benefit of having an established network.  Said Sasa, a 63-year-old Serb, “I consider myself lucky because my family came here before I arrived, and I didn’t have to stay in an asylum center” (Korac 85).  

Maintaining Motivation

For those who do have to spend months or years in asylum centers, it is difficult to regain motivation and initiative when one is finally granted permission to remain in the Netherlands. How are people willing to start anew in a country that restricts them for so long?  Gowricharn differentiates between political refugees who have contacts in the Netherlands (allowing for pre-arranged admission into the country) and those political refugees who are unknown and must go through the same procedures as any other refugee.  Understandably, the former group can begin their new lives immediately, whereas the latter are left in limbo, experiencing many of the uncertainties of asylum center life.

Tenacity and Drive

The resilience of all those who do go through the extended asylum procedure is especially impressive, as they must start over after years of passivity in the asylum system.  Gowricharn notes critically, “in the first place, people can take much more than we think.  They have enormous resilience, which is helped by the hope that things will be better.” Refugees have often already weighed the prospects: would they rather spend three years in an asylum center and eventually have a better life, or would they rather spend their days in a poverty-stricken or war zone?  Having committed themselves to the former course of action, they are better prepared to take the next step, to establish themselves and to make up for lost time.  Some have high hopes, while others are intent on solely surviving day to day; some, like Gasparac, find that they feel at home at a certain point.  This tenacity is characteristic of refugees.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali mentioned to one interviewer, “It’s about being in a small place somewhere in the world and thinking, ‘I want out.’  It’s about coming here and ending up in a kitchen, and being exploited, and having the choice of going back, but deciding to stay” (Linklater).




Christopher Caldwell, Daughter of the Enlightenment, The New York Times, April 3, 2005.

Halleh Ghorashi, Agents of Change or Passive Victims: the Impact of Welfare States (the Case of the Netherlands) on Refugees (Journal of Refugee Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, June 2005).

Kok, Stefan.  Presentation, Vluchtelingenwerk.  17 June 2005.

Dr. Maja Korac, Dilemmas of Integration: Two Policy Contexts and Refugee Strategies for Integration (December 2001), available at: www.reliefweb.int/library/RSC_Oxford/data/RSC%20Reports%5CDilemmas%20of%20Integration.pdf .

Alexander Linklater, Danger Woman, The Guardian, May 17, 2005.

Wat is integratie zonder thuisgevoel? 8 July 2004.  Available at: www.miramedia.nl .


Davor Gasparac, 26 June 2005.

Professor Ruben Gowricharn, 27 June 2005 (Telephone).

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 28 June 2005  (US Embassy, The Hague).

Special thanks to:

Brakse Vloet

Stefan Kok


Ruben Gowricharn

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

The De Vries Family

Tilly de Groot


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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2005


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