This interview was published on openDemocracy.
Babah Tarawally is a Dutch novelist and freelance journalist. In 1995, when he was 22 years old, he was forced to leave Sierra Leone due to the eruption of civil war. We met in Utrecht, where I had the chance to ask him some questions about his personal story and about some of the challenges faced by refugees in Europe today. Babah Tarawally’s words are powerful, and provide alternative perspectives on the issues faced by migrants and refugees. His message is one of hope; he urges refugees to emancipate themselves from both a racist or excessively pitiful discourse, and to acquire an active role in the construction of their future. This interview is based on a talk held by Babah Tarawally on the 7th of February in The Hague.
When and why did you flee from Sierra Leone, and how was your life there before you had to leave?
I lived in Sierra Leone with my family and my community. I had to leave Sierra Leone because of war. There was a civil war, my town was attacked, and that forced me to flee Sierra Leone. I also had some problems with the authorities there because of my political activism; I was a student activist, and opposed the military regime, which came to power in 1992. People in the military regime were all very young; the President was just 27 years old, and his colleagues were all around 22 or 23 years old. They became very dictatorial and brutal. As the war was pressing on, the rebels were pushing in, and our town was taken over, I had to leave the country in 1995.
How did you get to the Netherlands and what was your first impact with the country?
I took a plane from Guinea, which I had reached by foot. I was helped by what in the West are called ‘smugglers’. For me they were not smugglers, they were my saviours. I’m very thankful to them: they were able to help me to buy the plane ticket and get on board. I was 22 at the time. In regards to my first impact here, there are two parts of the story: you have the Dutch authorities, and you have the Dutch people, and how they perceive you. The authorities only see you as a document, as a file; they don’t see you as a human being. My story did not interest them. What interested them was to see if I fitted in the Geneva Convention definition of refugee. They just wanted to see if I had the criteria, that’s what they were looking for. They could not send me back, because my country was at war, so they allowed me to go through the procedure in order to obtain the status of refugee. The procedure took 7 years. During the first six years I stayed in different asylum centres; in the last year, I managed to apply for a student house, and was also able to study. Once I had finished my studies, however, I could not find a job because I didn’t have papers. I had job offers, but without papers I could not work. In the end, I obtained my papers. As to how I was received by the Dutch people: it was not a bad experience; of course, many of them did not want me. But the law was calling them to accept me and give me a chance.
In your talk you mentioned that your personality has been crucial in your successful integration in the Netherlands. Which aspects of your personality do you think have been particularly important?
I think that one of the things that are very important is to communicate with the local Dutch population. You have to be pro-active, take the first step. You have to prove yourself; when you have proven yourself, people will come and help you. You have to show your qualities, and make sure you grab opportunities. These are things that are important.
You also said that people who arrive in Europe have to resist being labeled and reduced as “refugees” or “migrants”. How did you deal with that and why do you think it is important to do so?
As I said, one has to have the right character, and if you don’t have it, you have to develop it. What usually happens is that, for the first three months, refugees are very relieved of having fled war, and are happy to be accepted and received in another country. After some time, however, problems start to arise. Refugees are humans, they have hopes and aspirations, and they often start to get angry and frustrated, because they want more, they want to get out of asylum centres and make something out of their lives. They don’t want to live as refugees forever. People don’t see me as a refugee because they don’t see pity in me. I walk straight up, I know what I am talking about, I’m a very confident man. When people see those attributes, they don’t perceive me as a refugee.
You do a lot of work with young refugees who arrive in Europe. What kind of education and preparation do you do?
I work with young refugees, mostly minors, who have come to the Netherlands, especially from Syria, Eritrea and Somalia. What I try to do is to help them discover and exploit their talents. I also try to teach them to see themselves not as refugees but as expats, in order to normalize their relationships with the Dutch population and not to be constantly reduced to their status of refugees. I want them to define themselves as musicians, carpenters, journalists, not as refugees.
We hear a lot the word “integration” in recent times, in relation to the arrival of migrants and refugees from many parts of the world. Do you like this term, and what have been the major challenges for you when you arrived here? Were they more cultural, economic or social?
Integration is a one-sided term. It implies that the person who arrives has to accept everything it finds in the new country. What we often forget is that integration should come from both sides. If you accept someone in your house, you should be prepared to share your space. If you’re not prepared to do that, then the other person will not integrate. Both sides should make compromises. As for the obstacles: the language was the first major obstacle. Language is the first thing that makes you feel a foreigner. So the first thing I tried to do was to learn the language, and made sure I was able to communicate properly in Dutch. I knew that breaking the language barrier was key.
What do you do here in the Netherlands now, and what links do you have with Sierra Leone?
I am a novelist and a freelance journalist. I collaborate with various magazines, and wrote two novels, both on the themes of migration. I visit Sierra Leone 2-3 times a year. I’m in touch with various local NGO’s, and I help them organizing projects and fundraising activities. I try to create a bridge between NGO’s in Sierra Leone and Dutch NGO’s, so that they can work together.
© Tommaso Segantini