Adel had no hesitation as he answered a question about the biggest struggle he faces after his long journey to the Netherlands, via Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Greece. Adel is one of millions of migrants who have fled civil war since 2013, leaving behind homes, jobs, families, and hope for a normal life. Like many refugees and asylum seekers in Europe, he didn’t want to leave.
There is an interesting twist to his story, however. Adel, though Syrian, wasn’t living in Syria when the fighting began. He was a student in Lebanon. Things changed in Lebanon once millions of people started crossing the border. Suddenly, being Syrian in Lebanon was like being black in the segregated South during the 1950s. Signs were posted everywhere that read, “No foreigners on the street after 6pm,” a not-so-cleverly cloaked way of telling Syrians to watch their backs if they are out at night.
Crisis in Lebanon
Lebanon and Syria are neighboring countries that have had a volatile relationship in recent history. Faced with a crisis of indescribable magnitude as well as limited money to provide assistance, the Lebanese government has not allowed for the establishment of official refugee camps. Instead, the refugees have been forced into makeshift camps with no official assistance, often being evicted from their illegitimate homes by the Lebanese army. It is a truly sad reality.
Seeing that there was no future hope in Lebanon, Adel fled, eventually finding his way to the Netherlands with the help of smugglers. As such, not only is Adel an asylum seeker, he is an illegal immigrant in a country that has received over 50,000 refugees since October 2015. The Netherlands have established a difficult process for these refugees and asylum seekers to gain legal status and start a new life. Adel has worked hard to make his way in his new home, moving from a refugee camp to a sleepy rural town.
This is actually the source of his loneliness. Coming from Damascus, the capital of Syria, Adel finds the quiet nature of his new home to be unsettling. Couple that with the Western value of individualism, Adel has struggled with a deep sense of isolation and loneliness.
We Are the Refugees
Inspired by an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to be with other humans, Adel has started the We Organization. The We Organization has four components: We are the Refugees, We are the Elderly, We are the Label, and We are the Information. We are the Refugees creates events to help Dutch citizens understand refugees on a human level through storytelling and interaction. We are the Elderly organizes cultural nights for Dutch old folks, including food, music and entertainment from other cultures. We are the Label is about sharing a life story from a person who has been given bad label by Dutch society to help them see the person who is standing behind the label. And We are the Information is a project designed to help refugees in Dutch camps to know more about the online services in the Netherlands.
The world needs more people like Adel. Instead of sinking into his loneliness and isolation, he is seeking to improve his situation and that of his fellow refugees by giving back to his new community and helping break down walls that often lead to xenophobia or Islamophobia. I encountered Adel’s story at a Summit on Migration last week in the Netherlands, and like so many other stories that were shared, I came to a deeper understanding of what faces us as we move towards a new era of integration and interaction across lines of difference.
No matter where you are in the West, opportunities exist for you to get involved in healing the pain of loss and creating a new life for people who have lost everything as a result of the biggest human crisis of our time. Often, it is as easy as using Google to search for ways to be a friend or mentor or language partner for a refugee in your part of the world.
Friendship is transformative. You can be a source of hope if you will open up your life and your schedule to make a difference for people who have lost everything.