Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes
Series about refugees at UM
Among the ranks of UM staff are a number of refugees or children of refugees. In this new Observant series, they talk about their lives before and after their flight from their home country, their views on the Netherlands, and their take on the debate about the refugee crisis. This week we kick off with medical doctor Chahinda Ghossein-Doha from Lebanon.
South Lebanon, late 1980s
“I remember a few things from that time. Bombings, shootings. Sometimes the fighting would die down and you’d wonder, is it safe to leave the house, can you do your shopping? But it was also normal; you got used to it. I wasn’t afraid. Not till the end, anyway. That’s when the militias started going from door to door, shooting people summarily. One day someone came running from the field behind our house to warn us they were coming. Then there was a knock at the door. My father didn’t open up; we all just sat in the room. We heard a shot, and one of my father’s security guards was hit in the back and paralysed for life. An uncle was killed too.
“We lived in a town not far from the border with Israel. My parents were both teachers who’d set up a private school. My father was also a prominent politician in the Amal party, which subscribed to a liberal Muslim philosophy. We are Shi’a Muslims. Lebanon had been in this protracted civil war since 1975; the country more or less fell apart. My father was responsible, on behalf of the party, for defence in the south. At the same time there was the conflict with Israel, with a twelve-mile zone still occupied in 1985.
“I was born that year, my parents’ oldest daughter. It was a caesarean delivery, so it had to be in the hospital. But no doctors were around; nobody dared leave their house because of the war. My father sent some other party members out to pick up the doctors from their homes. Only those doctors who still had some trust left went along with them – it could be a conspiracy, after all.
“We fled in 1990: my parents, me and my sister, who was born in 1987. We also had a brother, born in ’89, also by caesarean section, but he died five days later because of the lack of medical care, of equipment. He was in one part of the hospital, my mother in the other, and at the time there was no link between the departments. She never got to see him again.
“That was the last straw for my parents. They were still young: my father was 32, my mother 26. You grow up fast under circumstances like that.
Syria to Alkmaar
“We fled to Syria and from there by plane to the Netherlands, to Schiphol. My father wanted to go to Germany. He had family there in business, so that was a draw card for him. But we were given such a warm reception in the Netherlands that we ended up staying. We landed in a refugee centre in Alkmaar. Getting asylum was no problem; the events in Lebanon were all over the news, including the shootings in our town, and my father was well known outside the country. One time he’d been arrested by the Israelis. His party managed to arrange his release a month later, but not before he was tortured. Later, here in the Netherlands, he underwent therapy for that. And my mother is the daughter of a politician who was killed by the Israelis in Beirut in late 1984. I was born on the exact same day one year later. That’s always given my mother mixed feelings: joy and grief, all at once.
“Within three months we were in a rental in Huizen. Then, once the residence permit came through, we had to sort out housing ourselves. My father was happy to stay in the Netherlands, but it had to be close to Germany and Belgium to make doing business easier. We ended up in Roermond, where I grew up. Later he started his own business there. I got two more brothers, one six years younger than me, now in his fifth year of medicine here at UM, and another twelve years younger, now doing his final school exams. My sister studied Health Sciences here, I did medicine. I was finished within six years, and got my PhD in four.
“Our parents always emphasised the importance of education. Their own lives took a different turn, but – perhaps surprisingly – they’re not bitter. After all, my father was a well-known figure in Lebanon, but here he was just another foreigner. My mother studied biology. She was very good: during her studies she landed one scholarship after the other, but because of the war she didn’t end up graduating. And here in the Netherlands she couldn’t do anything with it. She ended up doing the books for my father’s company. They now live in Maastricht, since all of us kids are down here. In the last few years she’s been volunteering at the refugee centre and finds it really rewarding. I see her marriage as an example for me. With all the tensions in their lives it could have gone wrong a hundred times. But on the contrary – they’re still in love, they can’t be without each other.
“A recurring theme in our house was always: we’re going to go back to Lebanon. It’d be, ‘As soon as the kids have finished primary school’. Then that became high school. It was possible: the war was over, we went on holiday there every year and I loved it there. We were brought up to love the country. It was my father in particular who hoped we’d go back; my mother was more cautious. Things could change again at any moment, she figured.
“Personally I thought it was a good idea, but that changed when I started studying. That’s when you really start to have your own life. You move out, and I met my future husband, who’s also Lebanese.
“I’ve never had any bad experiences being a Muslim here. I started wearing a headscarf at the age of 12, that’s part of our tradition. I was the only one at school, at least until my sister got there too, but I was never bullied or anything. And I’ve kept on wearing it – not always consistently, to be fair, but still. I tend to drape it differently to my mother. Not under the chin but instead loosely around the neck. I started doing that because it was easier to use a stethoscope, but now I just think it looks better, haha.
“So there were never any negative comments. I don’t get those women who say they’re discriminated against for being veiled. I sometimes notice the opposite: Dutch people who are over-the-top friendly. It’s sweet but also patronising. And unnecessary. Just as I don’t have to make up for those Muslims who screw up, they don’t have to make up for the Dutch.
“I don’t live in two worlds, Lebanese and Dutch – we’re naturalised, Dutch is a ‘safe’ nationality – but in three. The third is the one that people think I live in, the world of the oppressed Muslim woman. Even back in my school days I’d get questions and comments. Whether I’ve been married off, that kind of thing.
“For me the headscarf is a statement. Of course, every woman wants to be seen as beautiful, but you also want to be seen as a person. In the West that process is further along than in the culture I come from. There the scarf means: don’t just look at my appearance. That’s the tradition I grew up in. I’ll take more of a backseat with my daughter, let her make her own choices. In my family in law no one wears a headscarf. That was an issue for them, having a daughter-in-law like me.
“Everyone has less pleasant experiences to deal with now and then, but in my case is that because of what I am? If people expect me as a Muslim in a headscarf to always be submissive, well, sometimes they end up finding me hard to handle. I stand up for myself.
“I do think the social climate has changed. When you turn on the TV it’s all about Islamist terror, oppressed women, Moroccan troublemakers. My take on all those things is exactly the same as that of most other Dutch people. But lately it’s also been about refugees, and suddenly I thought, oh right, I’m one of those too. I now belong to a minority that people ‘have an opinion of’.
“Of course I have an opinion too. I totally understand that you can’t just let everyone in: you have to be able to continue providing a decent way of life, not in camps; that’s when you create second-class citizens. It’s like a hospital – there you also sometimes have an admissions freeze. But why does the debate have to be so disrespectful sometimes? People refer to them as opportunists, rapists, criminals. That negativity in the discussion, that’s something I don’t understand.”
Chahinda Ghossein-Doha (29) is a postdoc in gynaecology and coordinator of the Queen of Hearts programme. She is married to Karim Doha and has three children, a son aged 2 and a 9-week-old daughter; her first daughter died after 10 days. “She’s now up there,” Ghossein-Doha points skyward, “watching over us.”