In the past few years many Syrian refugees have sought asylum in the Netherlands. My encounter with the Syrian refugees began in early 2019. As Arabic is my native language, I often found myself hearing conversations in the Syrian dialect while strolling the Dutch urban centres. Later that year I began frequenting an ethnic restaurant in Utrecht’s old city run by a Syrian refugee. The restaurant is a typical Middle Eastern eatery, offering dishes such as falafel and shawarma. The staff are composed mainly of Syrian refugees (Christians, Muslims and Kurds) who serve their clientele in both Arabic and/or Dutch. The richness of the interactions at the restaurant and the encounters with the Syrian refugees motivated me to conduct in-depth interviews to hone in on their refugee journeys, and their resettlement process in Dutch cities. In-depth interviews are a common method which aims to illuminate the worlds and the lived experiences of the interviewees. The following is based on the analysis of the interviews.

In this blog entry I focus on the gendered aspect of identity since it is one of the themes that emerged across almost all interviews, indicating its importance. I also focus on the urban dimension of identity, and how these are reflected in the identity of the Syrian refugees. Despite intersectionality being a foundational concept or lens in social sciences, scholars rarely relate to the level of urbanity (i.e. rural or urbanite), and how this dimension is critical in everyday life and in the resettlement process.

Gendered experiences
Gender is evident in the Syrian refugees’ accounts of their asylum journey. This includes mentions of pregnant refugee women coping with the difficulties of the journey itself, in addition to mentions of women having to deal with human traffickers. Moreover, upon arrival into camps, some women resort to survival strategies such as swapping urine samples to ‘pass as pregnant’. Pregnant women are given ‘vulnerable status’ in some refugee camps, which means that they are given priority in caravan or apartment housing, rather than tents, for example.

Gender is the overarching theme across the interviews conducted with both the Syrian refugees themselves and the resettlement officers. Both groups emphasize the tension in gender relations, especially with regard to norms and values about propriety and modesty. Lisa, a Syrian refugee woman, notes the following:

‘I hope that the fear the refugees have will fade away. They live in closure [isolation]… I was translating for a few families with some English and some Dutch… A few of them do not want their daughters to go to the swimming pool’.
– (Lisa, late thirties, formerly the owner of a dental laboratory in Syria, currently a dental technician in the Netherlands).

Furthermore, when Syrian refugee women become aware of their rights and freedoms, it challenges the gender relations. This is especially true if they become financially independent by virtue of their earnings and provide for the family, or by virtue of having access to social transfers from the welfare state. This often results in gender role reversal whereby the man is no longer the main breadwinner, which in turn disrupts one’s self-image rooted in the gender roles. In some cases it triggers gender-based tension such as demanding that the female partner does not leave home and restricting her mobility. Almost all of the Syrian refugees interviewed and the resettlement officers referred to this point, which sometimes results in couples separating. The accounts shared by the interviewees indicate that the separation in some cases helps women leave controlling relationships.

In line with this, one of the female interviewees underscored her ‘right to anonymity’ in urban settings. The same interviewee linked this point to her experience of removing the headcover and exerting her ‘right to be invisible’. In her experience, the anonymity permits a certain degree of individualism and personal choices that otherwise would be difficult to enjoy in settings where her identity is known to others, and due to the informal social control they represent.

Syrian urbanites
When asking the Syrian refugees about their experience in the Dutch cities where many of them work, in comparison to the Syrian cities they originated from, their accounts portray nostalgia. For example, the interviewees indicate the vibrancy of Damascus, its night-time economy, the social life scene, its coexistence between diverse groups such as Muslims, Christian, Armenians and Kurds, and the sense of personal safety they enjoyed before 2011. Some of the interviewees draw on their experience as urbanites and how this manifests itself in their new life in the Dutch cities. The following quote illustrates this point:

‘Because of one’s [my] background, I prefer the city. [Utrecht] is student city, and it is touristic. Touristic city is good for business… I liked Utrecht because I am the son of the old-city in Damascus. The old-city in Damascus has the same system as in Utrecht where the church is in the city center’.
– (Elia, mid-forties, formerly an entrepreneur in Syria, currently an entrepreneur in Utrecht’s culinary scene).

Interviews with resettlement officers also indicate that the urbanite Syrians often have the advantage of higher rates of literacy compared to their rural peers. This translates into human capital as well as an advantage that shapes their resettlement trajectory and prospects in the Dutch labour market.

Moving forward
These emerging themes are based on in-depth interviews which provide rich and detailed accounts. Future research will help shed light on the matter from different angles. So far, these preliminary recommendations are worth noting, as they are expressed by the interviewees themselves:

  • Initiation of the language classes as early as possible (e.g. in the camps).
  • Supporting women in cases of gender-based tension, as the women see this kind of support themselves.
  • Educating and training the Dutch professionals working with Syrian refugees on Syria and Syrian culture in order to mitigate stereotypes.

Image credit: Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash