Becoming citizens for the first time

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As a Syrian refugee in the Netherlands, I had to experience the unexperienced. The journey from a dictatorship to a democracy grants me the chance to taste the flavour of citizenship. Something refugees like me probably had never experienced in their lives before. However, by becoming a citizen, you get rights, and with rights come of course responsibilities.

Besides developing my biking skills on a rainy day, wearing a poncho, and avoiding the cranky bikers in Amsterdam, I believe that becoming an Amsterdammer also means experiencing a variety of things that Dutch society and this city are rich in. Things that Dutch citizens might take for granted, but many refuges experience for the first time.

Like any place privileged with the blessings of democracy and human respect, as a ‘refugee’ in the Netherlands (or any democracy) you experience the unexperienced. For example, it is for the very first time in my life that I receive letters from the municipality that address me personally and by name! And I have a contact person at the municipality with whom I am on a regular contact. And guess what else… Yup, I have also started nagging about its bureaucracy like everyone else here! Back in the days, I was not aware of what a municipality in my country could do other than follow-up with hapless sanitation workers – some of whom were actually secret agents – or to send some grumpy lads wearing black leather jackets (backed by strutting police officers) to demolish a tiny lodging over a rooftop that was illegally built.

In a nutshell, the journey from a dictatorship to a democracy grants the individual the chance to experience what is beyond the ‘refugee’ title… it is to be treated as a citizen. To some extent, we – refugees – are now becoming citizens for the very first time in our lives.

Escaping the iron fist of a monstrous dictatorship like that of Al Assad’s family, and head-first into a deep-rooted democracy, is not a journey that you can measure in miles or kilometres. In such a journey, the traveller skips across the boundaries of geography and crosses the boundaries of time. It is a journey from an appalling medieval political landscape to modernity. This journey allows a refugee to embrace the values of a free nation and enables him to embark living as a true citizen.

Despite all of the complexities of today’s world, and alongside debates from every corner about how genuine today’s democracies are, living under a democratic umbrella enables refugees to taste the flavour of citizenship. ‘Citizen’ is a term with its implications: both rights and responsibilities. In a country like Syria, a citizen can only practice his responsibilities. In Syria a bunch of so-called fundamental rights, like education and health, were in fact regarded in the official media as favours  bestowed upon the people by their generous leader! That being said, even the building of educational facilities and infrastructure were framed as bonuses given to the public instead of unquestioned rights.

Eager to vote in elections

Paradoxically, if you thumb through the Syrian constitution you will come upon with plenty of articles about the rights of the Syrian citizen. One of these is the freedom of voters to choose their representatives and the safety and integrity of the electoral procedures (Article 61/1). In practice, however, people know full-well what an election in Syria means. Simply put, it is not the type of election to which a Dutch citizen is accustomed. In Syria everyone knows the election’s outcome before voting has even commenced; in reality, it is more like a headcount of government supporters. Voting for anyone other than the President means risking your bodily safety for your entire life. For this reason, a significant number of Syrian refugees have no electoral experience whatsoever. Now, as an Amsterdammer, I can truly take part in this democratic practice and vote in my municipality as a citizen.

Police are here for the people

Once, after moving to Amsterdam, I woke up and prepared my sacred cup of morning coffee. I was enjoying my first sips close to my large window when I saw two police cars park right in front of my house. For no reason I panicked. It took me few seconds to pull back my mind, calm down, and to leaning unconsciously outside to see what the problem was. This seemingly minor event led me to reflect deeply about why I reacted so strongly to the police presence while knowing that I had not done anything wrong, violated no law, and played no loud music.

The police, anywhere, are undoubtedly not without occasional lapses. But when it comes to comparing a police force that is subject to the rule of law and police that are subject to the wishes of political leaders, well, you end up understanding why I was not comfortable when I saw the police cars arrive in front of my house. Here in the Netherlands, you experience how friendly and helpful most police officers are. You start to realise that the police here are a force for good and here to serve the citizens. Consequently, many people feel even more comfortable when the police are around because they feel protected by the police.

Taxes are due

One of the responsibilities of being a citizen is the duty to pay tax. Regardless of how you frame the obligation to pay taxes, it undoubtedly helps citizens here enjoy numerous, vital societal services that are provided by the government. Syrian refugees were more likely to be acquainted with paying obligatory bribes or unsolicited gratuities to governmental bodies. This is, sarcastically speaking, also considered a form of tax, but one that goes to fill the bellies of the corrupt. To put it another way, Franklin Delano Roosevelt once remarked: “Taxes, after all, are dues that we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society.” Taxes are dues, and in the Netherlands, you pay your dues to live in a democracy, get your voice heard, be more engaged in public matters as a citizen, and have a guarantee of better civil rights.

Now, let us compare that with the ‘newcomers’ tax experience. Try to remember something: Most of these refugees are coming from suppressed communities where they had no outlets or options for political participation. At a time when they had to demonstrate full loyalty and obedience to the rulers in return for what so called ‘tax-free’ services, these Syrians were completely marginalised. Still, I’m not trying to define and/or defend taxes, nor to sound utopian, but mainly to highlight that by actively integrating refugees into society by helping them gain a foothold in the labour market and to pay their taxes is an important dimension of civic engagement. Paying taxes is a form of participations, and paying taxes in a uniform and equitable way (e.g., the same rules apply to all citizens) enhances their feelings of belonging and enforces overall civic responsibility.

Dutch directness

One of the first things you learn about Dutch people is their directness. Crossing off an item in my integration list (i.e., becoming direct), I nod my head in agreement to confirm that the Dutch directness is spicier than elsewhere! To understand this better, I have honestly done some reading about this topic. One of the most insightful explanations that I found for this directness stated it’s because of the high value placed on equality in the society here. Aside from taking into consideration other cultural interpretations on why some communities have unique characteristics, I want to add that a democratic society like the Dutch society is direct because it also tolerates people expressing their opinions freely and spontaneously.

Unlike democracy, tyranny oppresses the individuals and one’s voice is rarely heard. The deliberate absence of participatory approaches in undemocratic societies passes on a collective behavioural tendency among its individuals toward caring less about involvement in public matters for fear of the consequences. Therefore, apathy towards public debates accumulates over time and becomes a lifestyle rather than just a decision. Here, lots of newcomers do not know their rights because they are not fully aware of what rights they have. Aside from a lack of legal knowledge, Syrian refugees still suffer unconsciously from the legacy of the aforementioned tendency to not engage in public debates. Including individuals who have fled a tyranny in local public matters is one key way to instil the best practices of citizenship amongst newcomers.

Living in a democracy and under the rule of law means that your rights are protected. There are, however, reciprocal rights concerning relations among the individuals and between the individuals and the government. When an applicable law is applied by state officials, contrary to their past experiences, a refugee here feels protected by the law. They do not fear injustice, they feel more appreciated, and they realise how equality works in every single activity ranging from catching a train, lining up in a queue for a crowded bus, setting an appointment at the doctor, or paying taxes. This is the feeling that no else is more important than you in this society and vice versa.

Refugees have begun a journey of practicing their freedoms as citizens – some of them seek redress from the oppression in their pasts while some others explore as well as enjoy the beauty of the ability to be who you are or who you want to be. Since arriving, some refugees have adopted fundamental changes in their looks, characters or personalities out of their strong faith in the freedoms they enjoy here. Some people from non-refugee backgrounds look and/or identify newcomers as refugees first, and yet the latter group behaves in the sense that they are normal citizens first before being refugees.

For the first time

I stress the fact that a ‘refugee’ is a term that refers to what type of document you have to legalise your stay in the new place you have begun to call home. It does not imply that such an individual has less or more needs than you; it does mean they accept nor want to live on social aid, and it does not mean that they are here to change your culture. It only means they are ordinary people born in countries that, in the space of a few years, have been turned upside down. They are normal individuals who find themselves in circumstances where they just need a slip of paper to find stability for themselves and their families now and into the future. To conclude, with these words I of course do not intend to label countries/societies as either good or bad nor do I wish to imply that the Netherlands is a utopia.

The message I want to convey is that newcomers are, for the very first time, experiencing aspects of life that you, as members of a democratic society, take for granted. Refugees have experienced a lot in the past, and now it is time to experience normal, and active citizenship.

Image: Unsplash