It is inconceivable that life can be thought to prepare us only for the things we can handle. For a very long time my view of the world has been that religion is only for the weak to wish away complex explanations for their failures or easy adjectives for their success stories. My first attempts at school were so bad, even by refugee standards. In Kampala, I almost led from the back in my first year. I was much older than most in the class, but also much smaller. All the same, I was quite popular; for all sorts of reasons—a taking of turns for vices and virtues.
Ogujebe refugee camp in northern Uganda, like many of the camps I have so far been to in the Netherlands, was not a resettlement. It was temporary. It was from here that a list would be drawn of those that would be moved to yet other camps where they would be allocated land for farming as well as a final signal to rebuild their lives for the longer term. It was from those camps that most refugees would then be able to get advice on asylum procedures. So in Ogujebe, we never got much information about possibilities of trips to Australia, Canada, Denmark or the United States of America.
It was thus little surprising that we were soon to hear stories of many other relatives from the neighboring camps talk about the “interview”. These memories had probably by now, been buried deep in the back of my mind. But now, thousands of miles from Uganda, I am confronted with different variations of the “interview”. Whether it is the body search, or item logging, to the ribbon tags as well as medical examinations. It is always a de javu I cannot remember clearly. Perhaps I never really broke free of the refugee status.
But wonderful to have that bubble burst in a place such as is the Netherlands. My new friends at the “Noodopvang Enschede” have an almost exotic talk. They discuss the rest of Europe like they were on a long picnic across the continent. But there is never mention of the big cities that has been part of my geography knowledge of Europe. “You must know the main cities across Europe”, I was told in my early secondary education. Social Studies exams in primary would test our knowledge of European cities! Africa does indeed go an extra mile to prepare its citizens for the heartlands of slavery and colonialism!
I must find ways to forget the past. But what part of my past can I truly forget? For in many ways, I am a combination of previous and present experiences. These all fuse to form my views on my immediate environment.
“We are an angry people by nature. We never easily greet one another. We like to go about our lives in isolation. We build a wall that only one of our own can see,” explained one of many Syrian or Iraqi or Palestinian refugee asylum seekers. He was surprised when one of the volunteers who was to take us to the market that afternoon, spoke a variation of Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian Arabic.
And even more shocked when she exuded an aroma of welcome friendship. It was awkward for a short moment. Those seconds of “checking each other out” seemed to have lasted an eternity. All that out of the way; the volunteer laughed, smiled and said in a Dutch-like attempt at humor, “that must have been your Palestinian face earlier”. He reciprocated the joke with, “now my Iraqi face has taken over”. I smiled to myself in the corner. Observing others was my weapon. Trying to understand the little intricate details was my game.
Revisiting those moments and looking at the most minute details was my affliction.
If I must forget, then I must first accept my new realities. I must accept that I am part of this gang. I must find a way to immerse myself among them and be them. A journey into being Dutch could not have had a better head-start!
It is not that being one of them is bad. I cannot bring myself to imagine Africa teaching Europeans how to be African by asking them to first become Arabs or whatever the largest population of migrants to Africa would have been in this hypothesis. Perhaps Indian or Chinese! They are fast-becoming part of Africa. We have our own wheel-barrow pushing Chinese hawkers in Zambia. We have Indians peddling sophisticated duplicate merchandise across the African continent.
Becoming part of them means submitting to the will of those making the rules. As has been decided, we must all wake up at a certain hour. Personal hygiene cannot be over emphasized! It is amazing how a 26 year old can discuss personal hygiene with grown men and women, who have brought more life into the world than all of the Netherlands ever will. But we must remember that compliance is as part of the asylum process as there can be other rules. So we listen. I listen too. The rules are quite basic. But the efforts at translation do get more confusing. Especially when the Dutch try to translate from Dutch to English, then to another version of English that they think is simpler and most comprehensible to the immigrant asylum seeker.
I glow in the corner and come alive. Saying nothing, absorbing everything. This is my “getting off” if you follow me. Then the pictures follows. Drawings have been provided to illustrate presentations to the immigrant. Being an asylum seeker, I must pay keen attention. No smoking in the rooms…ok. No riding on the driving lane and no walking on the biking line…Ok. “This is the land of cycling” comes in at some point in the presentation.
Then we proceed to drawings on how to use the toilet. From sitting positions to flashing the toilet and leaving it “cleaner than you found it”. We are also told that our rooms will be checked randomly. “You see in the Netherlands, we like to be clean. It is good for all of us, so that we don’t get diseases and fall sick”, we were reminded. There was the dinner time explanations. “Dinner will be served from 6:30 in the evening till 7:00 pm. You must all be there with your orange cards,” the voices said with a strong accent and tone for emphasis.
Though I do no smoke, I read the no-smoking signs by heart. Though I know how to use the toilet, I read the door signs and wipe the toilet seats clean, before and after sitting in the appropriate position. I am prompt at dinner. I hand my orange card, it is then initialed that I have been served the meal of that day, but also I presume, that I am present. I eat, clean my table, stow the plastic-food-container-turned-plate away into the bin nearby. I wash my folk and table knife. Back to my room, I take my lower decker bed and try to sleep, even though it is not yet eight o’clock in the night. I can hear the television.
This goes on till all the others resign to their beds, much earlier than most. Then the beautiful Dutch voices take over. I wake up from my pretended slumber. I sneak into the living room area, spread with black sofas. Then another colleague joins in and soon we are five or six. And we struggle to complain about the display on the television set. I never say anything. But in this new world, words and silence are one and the same. We watch as she takes off one item at a time. Religion has been cast aside, even as it is Ramadhan season.
Then silence grips the room. Silence of words and minds. Freedom takes the wheels. At our own seemingly synchronized intervals, we each disappear as if into the night.