The Debt of an Immigrant: What I Learned About Racism

Refugee Dreaming” by Hunter, licensed under CC BY 2.0

A month ago, it was the three year anniversary of leaving my troubled home, Turkey, to settle in Amsterdam. As a gay man with opinions that are not in line with those of the current government, it was starting to feel like I was allowed less space to be myself with each day, and the recent difficulties only justified my decision to immigrate. During this period, the LGBTQ Pride Week was canceled for 2 consecutive years, several terrorist attacks took place around the country, and a failed military coup was followed by a purge of about 160,000 people under the state of emergency.

When I decided to move to the Netherlands, I believed that my identity and opinions would make this country a place where I could be myself. As the world’s first country to legalize same-sex marriage, I had known the Netherlands as a country widely subscribing to liberal values. But my immigration also coincided with a global rise in racism and xenophobia, and as a result, the country has seen an increase in hostility towards large Muslim communities such as Moroccan and Turkish people. Having been an immigrant in this new socio-political landscape, I started experiencing racism for the first time at age 24.

Although I am gay, I was part of the privileged in Turkey as a cis Turkish man with higher education from a respectable university. Over the years I have been living in the Netherlands, I have seen these privileges mean nothing as they were stripped off one by one. I saw that sometimes it did not matter if the lifestyle in the Netherlands was more suitable for me. I was made to put on different labels, most of which can be summed up as “another immigrant taking up space/jobs/opportunities that were not meant for him.” In moments like these when strangers pass judgment, I realize it after the fact since being on the receiving end of racist remarks is not something I have experienced before. Most of the time, I focus on how much I contribute to the Dutch society, and how that makes the whole encounter even more unfair.

This is what I had been thinking for a couple of weeks after the last encounter I had with a customs officer in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. Exhausted from flying for almost 4 hours, I felt relieved to see the passport line moving quickly, which meant I would be home earlier. When I handed my passport and residence permit to the customs officer, I smiled at him with this comforting thought in mind. He took my passport and after noticing my nationality, he asked me if I spoke any Dutch. Considering that one of the largest minorities in the Netherlands is Turkish, I did not think much of the question and told him that taking a Dutch language course was in the works. When he asked how long I had been living in the Netherlands, I realized there was something wrong as these questions are not normally asked in a simple passport check. After handing over my passport, the customs officer put the residence permit on his side of the counter and told me that he was going to keep it, since I did not deserve it. For that small second, all I could do was stare at his deadpan face, completely dumbfounded and at a loss for words. When he gave my residence permit back saying that he was joking, all I could do was walk off while still trying to process what just had happened.

The moment after and in the weeks that followed, I kept repeating the same sentence in my mind: “I do not deserve this.” But only later I realized, my reasons for how unfairly I was treated were convoluted in themselves. I told myself that I had a master’s degree from a Dutch university, a well-paying job, and I was paying my taxes. I meet the requirements for a Dutch residence permit and for this reason, being treated that way was incomprehensible. Somehow, living by my perceived ideals of the West made the whole experience more arbitrary as opposed to other immigrants or refugees who do not have (respectable) jobs, or who live by their own traditional values.

In the past couple of weeks, following the tragedy the Dreamers are going through made me rethink my experience of racism in the Netherlands. Although the political climate of the USA might seem different on the surface, it is not the only country where nativist and conservative ideas are gaining momentum. Geert Wilders, often dubbed “the Dutch Donald Trump,” and his political party, the Party for Freedom, subscribe to similar anti-immigration politics and have an election manifesto that vows to “De-Islamize the Netherlands.” His party came in second in the 2017 general elections but luckily, several parties elected to the parliament refused to form a coalition with him. In this way, Trump’s administration is a horrifying demonstration of how vulnerable refugees and immigrants might become if Geert Wilders’ of the world are enabled.

I was not surprised by the decision of the Trump administration to rescind the DACA program, nor by the recently announced plans to replace it with a program that will require applicants to have continuous employment, a college education, or join the army in order to have residency. What surprised me was how much I related to the Dreamers protesting the decision, saying that they are successful students and business owners and how they identified as Americans. This crystallized the hidden meaning behind my own explanation for the unfair treatment I receive in the Netherlands. I believe that one’s place of birth should not entitle someone to a certain set of privileges and make them more worthy of access to basic human rights. However, I am also starting to realize that my contribution to the society should not be a counter-argument to any form of hatred.

In trying to oppose racism and xenophobia, both of which are based on assumptions, one’s resume is not relevant. The everyday version of racism does not allow space for one’s story. It is quick and aggressive. The political side of it, on the other hand, clusters groups of people together, who otherwise would probably have no relation to each other except for a fraction of their identities. This is why my whole story did not matter to the customs officer, he was not interested in hearing why I set foot on this land with the hopes of a better life that was safer for me as a gay man. He only wanted to make his unwelcome expectations known and imply that whatever I did, I would always fall short. This expectation from me, to make something more of my life as opposed to a native Dutch citizen, injects a different meaning to my successes. They stop belonging to me, when every step I take forward in my life becomes a token that is held against harsh standards to measure my worth.

My failures are also no longer merely missteps that are part of life, they are now triggers for anxiety. I remember it vividly when even a simple fine for biking through a red light made me search on the immigration office’s website to see if it was cause for deportation. I feel lucky to have a job that allows me to stay here, but I also remember fearing how my life in Amsterdam would have fallen apart if my contract had not been renewed. I struggle with the emotional burden of wanting to feel at home in a new country and being aware that a single mistake could be an end to all that I have built here so far.

Soon, I hope to be eligible for a long-term residence permit, and maybe I will even apply for Dutch citizenship in the future. Like many other refugees and immigrants, I will do these things only to prevent the anxiety attacks from happening, to be able to take risks, and to feel like my successes belong only to me. However, I have the suspicion that even being a Dutch citizen or speaking fluent Dutch will not be enough — I will always be the other who needs to try harder.