You never know when it's time to go

Nearly five hundred refugees await their deportation at the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA)’s family shelter in Katwijk. “Some people have been here for eighteen years.”

(Het originele Nederlandstalige artikel staat hier)
“Actually, this is a barrack”, says Salaheddin Ben Cherifa (35). “It was built for soldiers and officers stationed at Valkenburg, the former military airfield.” Other nearby buildings are used by Katwijk’s motorbike club “Easy Riders” and the Royal Dutch Police Dog Association. In this complex, eight kilometres from Leiden, 470 failed asylum seekers are waiting to be deported. More than half of them are minors, so it’s not surprising that the hall wall is covered in chalk drawings or that a bright pink toy tractor has been left at the door.

Ben Cherifa is one of the shelter managers at the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA)’s family shelter in Katwijk. “We’re responsible for welcoming the families and making sure that this place is habitable for them.” Last Friday, he explained what he does at Leiden University’s Local Integration symposium.
He points to the field next to the complex; until recently, it was full of extra houses to accommodate the influx of refugees. “Six hundred people lived in that empty field there.” Nearby, the doors of primary school De Verrekijker swing open and the children pour out, gleefully. Some older boys want to play a computer game. “What do you want to play?” they ask each other, speaking Dutch among themselves.

“We have about a hundred kids at our primary school”, says Ben Cherifa, “because it’s very hard to distribute them across Katwijk. We need all the capacity ourselves, so we can’t have Katwijk children at De Verrekijker. Apart from that, it’s a very ordinary primary school. After finishing this school, they’ll move on to ROC Leiden or one of the other schools: until they are eighteen, they have a right to education. The COA has a travel allowance for kids who need to travel more than ten kilometres.”

Education is crucial, in his opinion. “I’d rather that they’re sent back to where they came from with some education behind than that they try to survive as illiterates.”

Ben Cherifa himself was a failed asylum seeker too, and lived here illegally, arriving in the Netherlands after fleeing Algeria’s civil war at sixteen. “It was 1999, it was February and it was very, very cold. Leiden was the first place I arrived and my first impression of it was amazing. The canals were frozen over, people had tables and chairs on the ice and were just sitting there. It looked like one big amusement park.”

However, after a while he was told “that I had to leave the Netherlands within 28 days”, he recalls. “I might have strayed down the wrong path and got involved in crime, but I didn’t want that life. So, I worked very, very hard, in restaurants and cafés – illegally – and had to keep going into hiding. I modelled for a painting and drawing club too – with my clothes on, mind you, so I’d have fifteen Euros for shopping. I had a lot of help, but mostly I did it all myself. I grew up in an orphanage in Algeria, where I developed a keen sense of survival, which helped me a lot here.”

False hope
After eight years, he was allowed to stay in the Netherlands and he went to work for the COA. “I try to offer a future to people in a difficult situation and help them put their situation into perspective. I tell them about my own experiences. You can go and cry in a corner or you can get up and see what you do about it. It’s tough; I know that better than most. You need to stay grounded and practical: don’t offer people false hope.”

The COA staff often have to deal with tense situations specific to a family shelter. “For instance, men and women feel differently about life here. I’d say that most women carry on doing the same things they did in their old country: looking after two to three children, the cooking, the cleaning, the washing and doing the shopping in Katwijk.”

By contrast, the fathers, who were used to being the family’s provider, are not allowed to work. “If you’re from a culture where the father is the head of the family, it’s quite hard to deal with the situation.” In addition, the fathers often feel bad about the weekly allowance – 141,40 Euros for a family with two children that does all its own food shopping. “That living allowance affects their role as a husband: their wives don’t need them any more, so to speak.”

That’s on top of the mental anguish caused by fleeing and years of lawsuits. “There are people who scream for attention and those who suffer in silence. We set up a routine for the people having a rough time, introducing them to activities like running. Moreover, the sheltered housing supervisor visits the families at least once a month to check up on them. There could be tension between teens and their parents, for instance, with the kids blaming their parents: ‘Why did you get us into this situation?’ They have to learn to deal with such accusations. It gets even more emotional if they get bad news from the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND). In such cases, people will be in tears and we need to be there for them and try to calm them down.” It never really gets out of hand. “We only need to phone the police once a year, at most, usually, for an incident involving someone who can’t take any more.”

After all, deportation threatens all the families who have exhausted all the legal means. “Residents have the option of a voluntary return, but they hardly ever choose it. Most of the families are already headed for a forced return. A supervisor from the Repatriation and Departure Service is appointed to help each family and explain each step, even if the return procedure is nearly complete. The residents in question can still opt for a voluntary return at that stage. If they don’t, the family is collected at seven o’clock in the morning – that’s because the children aren’t at school yet. We’re there to make sure everybody stays calm.”

Although the residents know that their deportation procedure is underway, it’s still always a shock when their time is up. “First, they are moved to a family detention facility in Zeist: the last stage before they are taken to Schiphol.”

In reality, many of the residents are stuck. Whether they can actually return to their country of origin depends partly on that country’s cooperation. “It’s very hard to arrange a return to Iraq, for example. There are people here who have been here for eighteen years.”

“We’re so happy we can stay”

“I’m so glad”, exclaims Giorgi (24). “We were eventually granted a residence permit.” He, his parents and his three brothers are allowed to remain in the Netherlands. Giorgi (“my surname is difficult and very recognisable – I’d rather it wasn’t published”) came to the Netherlands from Georgia. “We were living in the capital, Tbilisi, when war broke out in South Ossetia in 2008. My parents fled first; I left in 2011. When I arrived in the Netherlands with my older brother, I hadn’t seen the rest of the family for two and a half years. I met them, here, in Katwijk. Feeling their embraces after all that time was indescribable.”

Life in the shelter is often tough, according to Giorgi. “We must report in every day, which I hate. It makes me feel like a criminal. I feel like a prisoner, because officially, we’re not allowed to go beyond Katwijk’s municipal boundary. It’s rough: I wanted to continue my education and make something of my life. I’m 24 now and haven’t achieved anything in five years, which hurts. I should have had a job long before now.”

“I had an outlet for my emotions, acting with the shelter’s theatre group. We did a play about life at an asylum seekers’ shelter and performed it all over the Netherlands. I was even on television because of my acting!”
“It’s fantastic to be able leave this place”, Giorgi adds. “But the Katwijk shelter has become such a large part of my life, I‘m going to miss it. I want to work with young people in COA shelters in the future, preferably this one.”
By Vincent Bongers

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