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Week 3: Close to home

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In ‘Close to home’ Yemeni refugee Ali* and host Robert share their experiences living together. There will be weekly posts about the ups and downs, difficulties, highlights and surprises. This week they talk about their experience with looking for and finding jobs.

*not his real name.

Robert is many things, dad, dog-lover, Director of Takecarebnb, an organisation that matches newcomers to host families. Every day, he convinces Dutch host families to offer temporary places of stays for refugees with a status. Now that his youngest daughter has passed her final exams, it’s time to put his words into action.

Ali is a refugee from Yemen with big dreams. He loves poetry, chess and can solve a Rubik’s cube in less than a minute. He spent time studying and working in India when it became clear he could not return to Yemen. When travelling to Europe as part of a conference, he visited The Netherlands and knew he wanted to stay.

Ali: Since I have moved to the Netherlands, I have been grabbing every opportunity to work and learn and help me achieve my ambitions in a very challenging new work environment. I would have worked anything as long as it keeps me busy and distracted from my own thoughts, and also offers the possibilities to get a permanent job once I get my resident permit. I volunteered with startups and social enterprises. I spent six hours of most of my days on the train traveling from my camp to work and back, counting cows in the flat endless fields, which I enjoyed because it gave me a lot of time to day dream. My dream to be financially independent, my dream to be able to support my family, my dream to be free again.

Robert: Ali and I have been living together for a few weeks now. We have discussed how in Yemen people take off their shoes when entering a house, but often keep on their coats and how that would be interpreted in a Dutch context. Shoes off: uhm… are you planning to stay for the weekend? Coat on: so you are planning to leave within a few minutes? We also discussed tone of voice when talking to a doctor and how misunderstandings can arise. ‘Check pulse’ or ‘give medicine’ can sound like an order when a request is meant. 

We discussed work: how to design a resumé or what a trial month (‘proeftijd’) means. An interesting dilemma came up. Ali told me about how he had contributed to a refugee project. After four months, his position was transmuted into an internship. By the way, I didn’t know a refugee has to hand a big part of the internship compensation back to the AZC. Did you?

Ali’s manager told him that after receiving his residence permit, the internship would be transferred into a real job. When Ali asked again three months later, after having successfully concluded the formal asylum procedures, he was told to be patient. However, Ali didn’t have any patience left. After waiting for his status for 18 months he wanted to make progress, to start a career, to contribute to society, to be able to transfer money to his family. His manager accused him of being too focused on money. After a heated debate, Ali quit. Just like that. And felt bad about it.

Robert: He told me what had happened, about his mixed feelings about not wanting to be toyed with nor wanting to be disrespectful, and asked me what to do. I supported his decision. I realized how hard it is to look into Ali’s mind and how my opinions and suggestions are always influenced by my own background and experiences. I told him I was proud of him to stand up for his ideas and ideals and not be a humble I-must-be-grateful refugee. It is so important to keep your dignity, especially when in a position of uncertainty and dependency. But I also advised him to contact the manager to try to explain his side of the story and thank him for the opportunities offered. Two days later he told me he had done just that. Ali would now dedicate his energy to applying for other jobs. I was sure he would succeed soon.

Ali: After a long 18 months wait, I got my resident permit, I couldn’t handle the rush. I could work now, get my driving license, travel and I will get my own place. I’m so hungry for success. It’s time to focus and get back on track. I started looking for a real job after discovering my expectations would not be met with my previous employer. I quit because I learned not to waste time and time is money. I started looking for jobs, I spent 8 to 10 hours every day looking and applying. This time I learned to be more specific about what I’m looking for. I reached out only to companies that I believe are a perfect match. I don’t care if they reject me once, twice or even ten times, I always find my way to another decision maker. 

One rejection after another, sometimes I thought it was because of my race. Other times I thought to change my name and try to apply for the same positions to see if I would get different responses. The moment I moved to live with Robert I started getting good news from three of the top companies I dreamed to work with. Was my luck finally changing?

After this, the interview process started. I did not know this takes so long, I’m used to just one interview and so it was new to me to have one interview after another.

And one time, after my job interview, Robert and I talked about how I did, and I admire Robert’s ability to see the best in any situation. For example, when I mentioned that the interview did not go well, he replied, “You can say it went well, but it was not up to your expectations, or you discovered they are not a good match for you” which had a significant impact on how I perceive the situation.

I learned to be more patient and more focused, I got feedback like you don’t know what you want to do, you will never earn enough, you are a disappointment, you are just looking to be rich and other comments but Robert, as a mentor and friend, always helped me understand what I’m going through and what I really want to do and why I want to do it.

For me it’s not only the better salary or easier job to do, it’s about trying something new, until I discover my real passion.

Next time on ‘Close to Home’… how are understandings of family different for Ali and Robert? What can they learn from each other?