By Saskia Jenelle This story relates to my fieldwork, which takes place in Amsterdam and concerns undocumented refugees. My research focuses on how refugees and the volunteers who work with them experience encounters with ‘others’, and how these encounters influences their perception of human dignity. I would like to share a recent experience with you.
On May 29th 2015 the refugees from ‘We Are Here’ who resided in the ‘Vluchtgebouw’ (literally ‘Escape building’) had to leave the building that had served as their home for nine months. They were offered shelter in a barrack in Amsterdam-North and decided to walk the distance, making it serve as a form of protest to raise awareness for their need for adequate accommodations and fair legal proceedings based on international human rights.
To show support I joined the walk, together with friends and volunteers of the refugees who are active and loving supporters, and refugees from other ‘Vlucht-havens’.
The preparations of having to move were stressful at times and the slogans chanted during the march painfully underlined the precarious predicament of those trapped in a state of limbo; not being given asylum, but unable to return to their country of birth. Considering these facts, I was deeply impressed by the calm, friendly atmosphere and the strong uplifting spirit of the protest. People were singing, socializing and laughing together and some of the refugees handed out flyers to bystanders explaining the ‘We Are Here’ movement.
We ended up at the town hall. Some of the protesters pushed their way into the building, making way for everyone to enter. This pushing took me by surprise because the whole demonstration was very peaceful and I remember thinking “oh…ok, why is that necessary? this would not have been my choice, but…ok… what do I know about demonstrating”. Once in the building my mind was quickly put to ease when the calmness returned and a refugee leader asked everyone to sit down.
After half an hour the police chief asked everyone to leave the building to continue the protest outside and this request was executed without problems. Outside the leading supporters and refugee leaders were making plans for the continuation of the day, because people were tired and needed to get to Amsterdam-North.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, a police van pulled up, opened its doors, pulled a refugee inside, closed the doors and drove off. I could hear everyone’s surprise and disbelief. And I felt my own. WHAT??? No, really, WHAT??? Before I had time to fully realize what had happened, again out of nowhere (it seemed), at least twenty police officers with long sticks and an aggressively barking dog showed up and told us to move away. I think. I don’t remember hearing that request. “They must have taken the ones who pushed their way in”, I thought, “but why in such a unexpected and aggressive manner, they could have resolved this simply by talking to the ones in charge? Who gave the order and why?”.
I recall my senses tightening, feeling an inner cocoon of adrenaline protecting me and standing there repeating to myself “stay calm, this cannot be real, this cannot be real!!!”. I saw a woman pushed to the ground and while lying on the bricks of ‘Waterlooplein’ she was hit, hard, with police sticks. I glanced over to another side of the square and saw another lady hit while she was already backing away and I thought: “no really, stop, stop, why, why???” and at that point I got scared. People were hit for running the wrong way in a state of panic and I still hear the thump of the sticks hitting human bodies. I heard a police officer say “she is definitely coming with us”, referring to one of the prime leaders of the refugees and I thought “she did nothing wrong, why is this happening???”
In an attempt to calm myself, I started observing the police, hoping to find an explanation for this unexpected and, in my opinion, completely uncalled for escalation of violence. Looking into the eyes of some of the police officers I saw fear; one officer gazed at people without really seeing them and his voice trembled while yelling commands to his colleagues. “Oh shit,” I thought shockingly, “with all that fear they will hit extra hard”. And they did, not stopping at one single hit, even against the backs of people. I knew there was no room for reason and I remember thinking maybe my white skin would protect me while I was looking for my black refugee friends, praying they escaped the beatings and hoping they would not be arrested.
This scene may have lasted 5 or 15 minutes. Under threat of violence everyone was forced to leave Waterlooplein. I was in utter shock. What the F&%#CK had just happened???
I spotted my friends and all I could mutter was: “those fucking assholes, I cannot believe it”. My friend looked at me, with his heavy burdened, black eyes, and shrugged his shoulders. Not out of nonchalance. Out of a deep, inner realization of what it is to be illegalized within the borders of a democracy. “I know”, he said, “this is how we get treated. We get treated worse than dogs in this country”.
I looked at him. This beautiful, smart, and immensely strong man. And I wanted him to comfort me, because I had no idea why things had gone down the way they did. The world turned upside down! These refugees, whom all have a name, have faced war, violence, torture, murder or disappearance of family members, traumatic flight stories and I wanted my friend to comfort me, because I did not understand what had transpired.
He did. Comfort me. Just by taking me by the arm and telling me to take shelter under the tree. Around me I saw disbelief, confusion and tears in the eyes of the refugees and supporters, pain from the beatings and concern for the arrested refugees. I was deeply saddened by what I had witnessed. And genuinely ashamed. For the violence demonstrated on the cobblestones of ‘Waterlooplein’, the square where Amsterdam’s democracy is centered. Ashamed for the utter humiliation and violation of human dignity.
This is one of many painful examples I encountered so far. At this point I am completely confused, heavy hearted and I have shed many tears. Blaming refugees for problems beyond their scope speaks to fears and I am full of questions as to the why. What happens in this vulnerable space between people when they encounter each other? How is it possible that we, as a country treat this group of refugees as less than worthy?
What the f$%#ck happened??? I have no answer as of yet. Margaret Mead, a pioneer in engaged anthropology, once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”. I will hold on to these words for strength while finding a new inner balance to deal with all I encounter during my fieldwork.
Saskia Jenelle is a master’s student of Social and Cultural Anthropology at VU University, Amsterdam.