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REFUGEE FACED Rebuilding identity in asylum Annelies van ’t Hul


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ntegration of refugees has many faces, all too familiar to many countries all over the world. Instead of

focusing on the side of the receiver, in this case The Netherlands, like is done in most media, this story

turns the camera lens closely towards the experience of the ones who fled trying to find and build a saver

home in this Dutch country. The most dramatic experience a refugee is facing, is his or her loss of identity often feeling degraded and alienated in one way or the other. Being it in the painful course of restoring a

family life in an utterly strange environment or finding oneself looking into low profile jobs while you were a

dentist back home. Recent study (The Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands, May 2018) shows that 2,5 years after their arrival no more than 11 percent of the refugees have found a paid job; of which often a

part time contract or a temporary position. Among Syrian refugees, the largest group of refugees asking for asylum since 2015, approximately one fifth is high qualified.

This is a story about the resilience and rebuilding identity of Ranya (35), a Syrian lady and her family getting a foot on the ground in The Netherlands.

For months photographer Annelies van ‘t Hul has followed the footsteps of Ranya and her family. Time and

again, Annelies witnesses how they are facing the invisibility of their original belonging in Syria. At one point Ranya says: “We are paying for the Syrian war.” They were driven from their home and their safety nets. Yet, in their struggle to find a place in a world that is not their own, there are, however small, lights giving them

hope for the next day. Annelies reconstructs the way in which Ranya and her family try to become visible in a world that doesn’t know them and whom they do not know. The photographer walks the tragic line between the invisible and the visible. It’s not always what it seems to be.

When Ranya, teacher in French literature, mother of three children, tries to grasp the diagnosis of her blurring eyesight in the hospital ‘Zonnestraal’ all fences fall. It is one of the rare moments in this intimate portrait of

the members of a Syrian family that the hidden background comes to the fore. Ranya calls her family in her mother tongue: Arab. In this dramatic moment the loss of familiar bounds are all too obvious and painful.


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Refugee faced

Rebuilding identity in asylum Since a while now her eyesight is blurred, sometimes there are blots, distancing herself from her

surroundings. It makes her anxious. She has no idea what´s going on, let alone what to do, she needs an expert, a doctor. Here the thinking stops: How do you explain a loss of clarity in the eye in Dutch? What will happen when it’s serious, how can she take care of her three children, cook, in short, live? She will never be able to go to a Dutch university to validate her Syrian degree in French literature.

God knows how much she yearns teaching again, albeit, in a Dutch classroom. Her Dutch is getting

better every day. She already has her certificate in Dutch as second language and, God knows, she is proud of it. However, writing is an altogether different and harder issue to tackle. She is aware of this, but she will work on it relentlessly. If she would lose the light in her eyes, it would all end right here in the social housing in Huizen, living upstairs with her husband Nedal and their three children.

While Nedal waits for her brother to get out of the car in front of their home in Huizen, Estephany carries a bag filled with a fresh load of books from the local library. She spends around 2 hours each night reading. She loves it. Her teacher at school told her to write down all the Dutch words she does not understand in a

Ranya suppresses the fond memories of the weekends they spent in their place in the country, fleeing from the dust and work in Aleppo. This place, so dear to the heart, surrounded by numerous trees

bearing all kinds of fruit, has been taken by the IS. It’s theirs no more. But now they are here. She must focus on the loveliness of The Netherlands. She just adores its greenness. Trees everywhere and

everything is so neat and organized. It makes her feel grateful that this country has opened its arms to receive them, even though, she has to admit, it turned out so much harder than she could have

imagined. Take the endless paperwork because of inscrutable rules which, she is sure, she will never understand, let alone make them her own. A land of paper, that’s what Nedal calls The Netherlands sometimes.

She recalls how Nedal was on the phone with the electricity-company Qurrent. Their contract was due for extension. The lady on the phone, Ranya could hear her voice, the speaker of his cellphone was on, spoke

REFUGEE FACED - Rebuilding identity in asylum

notebook. Each week the two of them sit together and the teacher explains all the words.


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too fast. There were technical details about energy rates which included delivery costs, the lady babbled on and on. She could tell from the bending of his voice that her husband could not catch up. Finally, the lady and he agreed to talk again later in the year in order to finalize the extension of the contract.

There is always this lingering despair not to be understood. Missing the adequate words, which makes Ranya feel silly, her being so talented in the linguistics back home. It’s awkward, at times she needs to

rely on the Dutch linguistic skills of her 10-year old daughter. But, she speaks sternly now to herself, one should never turn his back to the generosity of acceptance of their host land. They named their third


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child Pieter, in honor of The Netherlands. After all, he was born here after she and their Syrian born kids Estephany and George (5) were reunited on Dutch grounds. For them Pieter is a sign of hope for a beckoning future perspective after the Syrian war had destroyed their lives.

Ranya is taking notes while studying for the theoretical exam of the Dutch drivers-license. Luckily she can do this in Arab. Studying in Dutch is too difficult

Nedal fled the Syrian war in 2014, leaving his bombed and plundered shop which he ran as goldsmith together with his six employees. Leaving Ranya and their two kids, in search for a future homeland to

rebuilt their lives in safety. Nedal and Ranya knew that The Netherlands allowed families to be reunited within one year, the main reason they wound up here. It was a long road he travelled with a modest

for her to concentrate on, while her three energetic children are around her in the same living room all day during the summer holidays.

rucksack. Only dressed in shorts, a casual polo-shirt and loafers on his feet, he looked like an innocent tourist. Via Lebanon, he arrived in Turkey taking a boat to Greece. From there he boarded for a flight to Amsterdam and went directly to the police. Ter Apel was the first of eight asylum seekers centers

he stayed at. All the while they were separated Ranya found herself surrounded by the sound of war without electricity, gas and water. There was no milk for the children. All this suffering along with the struggle to survive and find a safe haven for their family, Ranya realizes all too well that the people

they meet in The Netherlands can´t see this hidden context. In fact, Ranya and her family appear as an

ordinary family living in Huizen. It´s only when they make an attempt to communicate that people grasp they are not from here. It’s then that they appear as Syrian refugees eager to establish their lives.

Going to church on Sunday, being there amidst others, praying to their common God resolves

all misunderstanding they endure during the week. Faith is their source of strength. It is in church that Nedal and Ranya met Frans. Honestly, this man is Godsend. Frans, already 80, helps them

with practical stuff, mediates in conversations with officials and their forms they find so hard to decipher. It was Frans who helped Nedal to formulate his curriculum vitae in Dutch. In search

for work the two men visited jewelry stores. It was hard, the differences are great. Here in The

Netherlands silver is much more common than in Syria where gold and its mass production in

jewelry was the dominant business. Equally, Ranya was surprised to discover that French lessons

REFUGEE FACED - Rebuilding identity in asylum

Her cellphone is never out of reach, as she regularly uses message service to stay in contact with her family abroad. The brochure from the eye-clinic ‘Zonnestraal’ is still left on the table after her recent visit to the doctor.


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here are taught with Dutch textbooks, whereas in Syria they exclusively spoke French using French textbooks. Nevertheless, they are grateful that

Nedal found an internship for one day a week at the store of Natalie Hoogeveen, a jewelry smith. Of course, it is unpaid, but at least Nedal enjoys practicing his profession. Shortly this will end,

because Nedal is summoned by the municipality officers in Huizen to find a job soon, maybe not

his level, maybe something completely different. Ranya herself is busy with, and this is hard to

admit, exhausted by taking care of their three energetic kids. Yet, she has managed to start cooking by assignment for a cooperation.

Working with other women, is joyful. That´s how she lived in Syria, working together. Above all,

cooking is her lust for life. It doesn’t matter where they serve the Syrian food Ranya prepared in

her kitchen. Recently, they were serving out in

a chic district for the Rotary Club. She felt self-

assured and thrilled, enthusiastically explaining

their dishes. This she painfully lacks in everyday

life here in The Netherlands. It is as if she is hitting the wrong chord and as a result a part of herself disappears underground.


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Her youngest 2-year old son Pieter doesn’t understand why his mother is upset and talking on the phone in Arab. Ranya uses the highchair to make sure he can’t move around, while she has to share her thoughts and feelings after being diagnosed with cataract, far too young for her age.

Speaking of hitting the wrong chord, there is this painful ongoing issue going on with her neighbor. During the summer the woman had filed a complaint at the police because her

children were too loud. Policemen were standing here in the living room. They turned out to be

really nice finding nothing wrong with her family. Indeed, they were an ordinary family with three kids. Ranya invited the woman so the two of them could talk it over, but she never responded

to the invitation. Social life in The Netherlands is puzzling to her. It is hard to make friends. She really misses all her dear ones back home where she was appreciated for who she is. Here

the social code is indecipherable. At least for them. Still, she cherishes their achievements.

Nedal already has a Dutch drivers-license. Ranya herself accomplished the theoretical part of the drivers-license within 15 days. It helped that she could do this in Arab. Luckily Estephany

didn’t need any language to pass her Dutch swimming-diploma. Now Ranya is searching for an instructor to teach her driving on the Dutch streets and highways. Trying to avoid bicyclists, so unknown to Syrian traffic, might be her biggest challenge.

There will be no driving for her when the blurs and blots keep hindering her eyesight. It frightens

her. Ranya and Nedal visited the eye-doctor in the eye-clinic ‘Zonnestraal’ in Hilversum. It all went by so quick, too bad that Frans couldn’t come this time, the doctor talked so fast. Before they knew it,

they were standing outside. There was a lady who patiently explained to them that she was suffering, far too young for her age, from cataract. It was only in a beginning stage. There would be too

many complications for surgery right now. Maybe in ten years. By now her mind too seemed to be blurring. At home Ranya takes her cellphone, she tumbles over words in the mouthpiece. In Arab.


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Praying to a common God, it is faith giving them strength to move on

Every Saturday afternoon George attends swimming lessons in the public swimming pool. The teacher makes the children do all kinds of exercises in order to teach them what to do when in the water. The last ten minutes of each lesson they play around and have lots of fun. His older sister already passed her Dutch swimming diploma, making her parents really proud. In Syria it is very uncommon for children to learn how to swim. In The Netherlands though almost all children follow these lessons, as there is water everywhere in this tiny country partly below sea level.

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Psychiatrist Pim Scholte:

The case of refugees is a case of social bonds We can not see the reasons why people fled their home country and the trauma’s which subsequently have scarred them. This all remains hidden in the ordinary course of life, bringing the kids to school, taking driving lessons or doing groceries. We don’t know whether a refugee, man or woman, was a doctor or a farmer back home. The group where they belonged to, their former colleagues, family-members and friends, has disappeared and with that their inner sense of belonging. In his TEDxTalk (July, 2016) psychiatrist Pim Scholte explains at length how indispensable social bonds are for our sense of being. Our identity is formed by our surroundings in the broadest sense of the word. As Scholte, who was a board member for twelve years for Doctors without Borders during which he played an initiating and advisory role in mental health programming, puts it plainly: “I am through the other.” This insight has its African roots in Ubuntu: I am, because we are. No wonder Scholte has such a heartfelt insight, the refugee camps in Africa were his working place. Time and again he experienced what happens to people when they are displaced and their familiar context has evaporated. The psychiatrist regards this as the core of the problems around refugees who try to find a home in a foreign country: they lost their role and their social context leaving them with a sense that they are unseen. Scholte translates their silent cry: “I am through you, please connect me.” REFUGEE FACED - Rebuilding identity in asylum


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Every afternoon a moment of silence arises as soon as Pieter is taking his daily nap on the coach, under the wakening eyes of the religious objects, showing their Catholic faith. This toddler seems to have an on-/off button. Once he is awake, you definitely will know he is around. It is in these small windows of napping time that Ranya can do some necessary tasks, without her having to keep an eye on Pieter all the time.


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Ranya listens attentively while Nedal is answering a call from the electricity-company Qurrent about the extension of their contract. This is just one of the many occasions where a language barrier is becoming really explicit. In the background the photo frame shows just a couple of photos from their former life in Syria. Luckily they also have a few folders with photos on their laptop left, of which some of their honeymoon in Turkey. It is not much that they have been able to take with them, but at least it is something.

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Her Dutch study books are piled up in a corner of the living room, after Ranya passed her certificate in Dutch as a second language. There is still some more studying to do, especially when she wants to succeed in finding a job in her former profession as a French teacher. Her Syrian university degree in French Literature is not validated in The Netherlands. It needs one more year at a Dutch university to receive an equivalent diploma, according to the Dutch government.


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Nobody is paying attention to the broad television screen, which is playing a mixture of Dutch and Arab channels, all day long. Ranya and Nedal are cleaning up the kitchen, after supper, while the children are asking for attention. On this hot summer night they ask to go play in the children’s playground nearby, but their parents don’t have time to accompany them.

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Syrian dishes, passed down from mother to daughter, are served for the family dinner. Although Nedal prepares some dishes as well, Ranya proclaims that if there is a day she did not cook, she feels like she did not do anything that specific day.


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While preparing food in assignment for the catering cooperation, though unpaid except for a compensation for her expenses, Ranya stares out of her kitchen window. A few years ago her sight from her kitchen window in Aleppo was totally different. She should not think about that too much. Those days are gone. In the living room Pieter balances between focussing on the television and screaming for attention of his mother. Ranya can ignore his endless whining for attention to some extend, but as soon as he gets too loud she has to intervene not to disturb her neighbors too much.


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For a meeting of the local Rotary Club, the catering

A huge contrast with their own residence is

cooperation is hired to provide the dishes. For each

tangible when Ranya and her colleague are

assignment the ladies divide the tasks. This time Ranya

unloading the car with their Syran dishes in a

is preparing “Kubbeh” (also spelled “Kibbeh”), a popular

chic district with huge villas, wide lanes, lots

dish in the Middle Eastern cuisine, made of bulgur,

of beautiful old trees and gardens as big as a

minced onions, and finely ground lean beef, lamb, goat,

soccer pitch. Nevertheless at these moments she

or camel meat with Middle Eastern spices (cinnamon,

feels self-assured and thrilled, showing almost a

nutmeg, clove, allspice).

different lady than the exhausted mother of three.

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Showing, explaining and serving the food from her home country makes her so proud, even though speaking in Dutch is still a challenge. But she does not feel any hesitance to take her audience on a little imaginary journey to her home country. One moment she tumbles over the Dutch ingredient ‘pijnboompitten’, resulting in a giggle. All people present in the neat and spacious dinning room help her to get her pronunciation right. Exactly the philosophy behind this catering cooperation: having fun together and at the same time practicing the language and creating exposure to a new (social) network.


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Job coach Eugène van den Hemel:

Meeting in the streets, not on WhatsApp “Here in The Netherlands everyone is sitting in their houses and offices. People

communicate through email, Whatsapp and telephone. But that’s not in our genes, we encounter each other in the streets.”

This utterance comes from one of the Syrian status-holders Eugène van den Hemel has

guided towards a job in The Netherlands. The words struck the job coach as significant, it

helped him understand why the communication with Syrian status-holders, perceived by a Dutch perspective, isn’t smooth, to say the least. Van den Hemel knows what he is talking

about, he knows about the hindrances Syrian refugees experience when they enter the job market. Most of his clients are living here since two, three years. Sometimes they function

as a ‘Hug Syrian’ in organizations, i.e. as a signboard of corporate social responsibility. This tires status-holders.

Nedal and George climb the stairs to their

Time and again Eugène tries to match the capacities of his clients with the needs of the

job market. How can they make themselves relevant? In some cases he organizes a ‘meet & greet’. For instance he has managed to find an internship for Hakam, a dentist from

Damascus, at a dental practice in Rotterdam. As a ‘side-job’ Hakam is a guide for Arab speaking tourists at Royal Delft. However, it frustrates the intrinsic motivation that the

money earned is shortened on his social assistance benefit. It is two steps forward, one backwards.

allocated social housing, where the family of five lives since they were recognised as refugee (“statusholder”), meaning they have a residence permit for five years. Ranya and Nedal have submitted a request for a bit more spacious home, but without success thus far. Both Estephany and George have their own small bedroom, but the parents are forced to share their bedroom with their youngest son Pieter.

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Always this lingering despair not to be understood

The living room soon feels too small when everyone is busy with their own activities. Luckily during this warm summer the terrace serves as a welcome extra playground, where the children can lower their youthful energy to some extend. Due to the limited financial resources, this family can not take their children on a holiday or daytrips during the school holidays. Something Estephany finds hard to understand and accept, while all her classmates are away on vacation.

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In this atelier Nedal practices his profession as a goldsmith, though unpaid. At the same time he learns related skills, whereas the jewellery industry in The Netherlands differs quite a lot from the one in Syria.

In a country with more bicycles than inhabitants, it is - such a difference compared to Syria where cycling as pretty uncommon - the most normal thing to ride a bike. So does Nedal, once a week, to the store of Natalie Hoogeveen, a jewelry smith.


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Building up a life in completely different country also means starting all over to create a social network. Luckily Frans, a man they met in church, soon became a good friend of the family. Though hard to admit, he is a bit like a substitute grandfather to the children, who miss their grandparents in Syria enormously. Every Wednesday night he drops by for a cup of coffee, a chat and to offer his help, if needed.


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Just before the documentary reached its deadline there was a fortunate turn of events in

Ranya’s life. Word spread and landed that Ranya is looking for a teaching-position in French.

Accompanied by Annelies she had an introductory meeting with Femke Hagg who mediates in teaching jobs. Just when Annelies wanted to get in her car to leave, her cellphone rang. There might be an opening for Ranya tutoring pupils. For her it is as if one of her deepest wishes since her arrival in The Netherlands is coming true.

There might be a jobopening tutoring French, a wish coming true Documentary Photography Projects Course Annelies van ’t Hul info@anneliesvanthul.nl +31 6 51 40 52 52


Documentary Photography Projects Course 2018

Profile for anneliesvanthul

REFUGEE FACED - Rebuilding identity in asylum  

DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT - 2018 Exam project for the Documentary Photography Projects Course. Organised by World Press Photo, NOOR...

REFUGEE FACED - Rebuilding identity in asylum  

DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT - 2018 Exam project for the Documentary Photography Projects Course. Organised by World Press Photo, NOOR...

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