Interviewing Babah Tarawally, Dutch novelist and former refugee from Sierra Leone

Babah Tarawally’s message is one of hope; he urges refugees to emancipate themselves from both a racist or excessively self-pitying discourse, and to acquire an active role in the construction of their future.

From an interview by Tommaso Segantini published on Open Democracy.

Babah TarawallyTommaso Segantini (TS): When and why did you flee from Sierra Leone, and what kind of life did you leave behind you?

Babah Tarawally (BT): 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 and my town was attacked. 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 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.

TS: How did you get to the Netherlands and what was your first impression of the country?

BT: I took a plane from Guinea, 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. I was 22 at the time.

In regards to my first impression here, there are two parts of the story: you have the Dutch authorities, and how they perceive you, and you have the Dutch people, and how they look at 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 interests them is to see if you fit into the Geneva Convention definition of refugee. They just want to see if you have the criteria, that is all they are looking for. They could not send me back, because my country was at war, and they allowed me to go through the procedure to obtain refugee status. 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 on them to accept me and give me a chance.

TS: Has your personality helped your successful integration in the Netherlands. If so, what characteristics do you think have been particularly important?

BT: One thing that is very important is to communicate with the local Dutch population. You have to be pro-active, to 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.

TS: How can people that arrive in Europe resist being labelled and reduced as “refugees” or “migrants”. How did you deal with that ?

BT: 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 to have fled war, and are happy to be accepted and received in another country.

After some time, however, the first problems start to arise. Refugees are humans after all, they have hopes and aspirations, and they often start to get angry and frustrated, because they want more, they want to 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 any self-pitying 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.

TS: You do a lot of work with young refugees who arrive in Europe. What kind of work do you do?

BT: 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 this status of ‘refugees’. I want them to define themselves as musicians, carpenters, journalists first, not as refugees.

TS: We hear a lot about the need for “integration” in recent years, in relation to the arrival of migrants and refugees from many parts of the world. Do you find this term useful? What kind of challenge does this represent – more cultural, economic or social in nature?

BT: Integration is a one-sided term. It implies that the person who arrives has to accept everything he or she 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 like 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.

TS: What do you do here in the Netherlands now?

BT: I am a novelist and a freelance journalist, and I collaborate with various magazines. I have written two novels, both on the themes of migration.

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