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

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

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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