Everyone in Amsterdam has quite a high living standard, right? Wrong! The Undocumented Migrants of We Are Here have no right to housing, healthcare or education. By squatting empty buildings in Amsterdam they stand up for their rights as people of Amsterdam. Khalid and Adam tell their story.
Imagine living in a place where people are systematically murdered, tortured and raped because of their ethnicity. Imagine fearing for your life so much, you have no choice than leaving behind everything you love. You flee the country where you were born, not knowing what’s ahead. It’s a long and dangerous journey, but eventually you make it to the Netherlands. While you lost everything you cherish, you are finally in a safe place, and you can finally start thinking about the future again.
This is the reality of Adam (26) and Khalid (36). Khalid fled Sudan in 2002 and Adam followed in 2009 at the age of 18. They escaped from genocide that has been terrorizing Sudan until this day. In the Netherlands they requested asylum. They were taken to the asylum centre in Ter Apel where they were interviewed. Khalid reflects on this experience: “Everything was weird. For the first time you notice something is wrong. You are inside a place and you are not allowed to go outside anymore”. The interviews are meant to find out whether they qualify for asylum. According to Dutch law, a residence permit is issued when the refugee is in serious danger of execution, torture, or death due to an armed conflict. Many world powers, including the United States and the European Union, officially recognized Sudan’s genocide. And in 2010, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against the president of Sudan for his responsibility for genocide. Nevertheless, Khalid and Adam’s requests were denied without any further explanation. They were put on the street and asked to return to Sudan. Their dreams for the future fell into pieces.
Because returning to the violence in Sudan was no option, they stayed in the Netherlands without the right to live there. Khalid explains what this means: “When I just came here, I wanted to learn the Dutch language. But they told me you have no right to study the Dutch language, because you have no right to stay”. Besides being denied the right to education, they also have no right to work, shelter and healthcare. Therefore they are forced to live on the street. On top of that, even the smallest offence, like crossing a red light, could mean detention and even forced deportation. Adam tells of a friend who was sent back two months ago: “He’s now in prison”. To avoid being sent back to a country where they risk imprisonment, torture, or death, they are forced to live an invisible life. “I came from war”, Adam says, “but now I arrived in a cold war. We get mental problems here”.
Social scientist Dr. Deanna Dadusc explains: “When every aspect of one’s life is criminalized, the only weapon undocumented migrants have left is their own body, and often, the power over their own death”. For this reason, for many years, migrants have rebelled with hunger strikes, setting themselves on fire, or even suicide. In recent years however, Europe sees a shift from isolated acts of protest to collective modes of resistance. And so, also Adam and Khalid have turned despair into action.
Together with a group of refugees, they started their collective resistance in 2012 by occupying the Diakoni garden in Amsterdam. They were sick of living in invisibility and decided to put the spotlights on themselves and the inhuman situation they are forced to live in. They said: “We are here, we are human beings, and we deserve to be treated with respect”. We Are Here was born. Soon after, the group started to squat empty buildings in Amsterdam, taking their destiny into their own hands.
Almost 6 years later, the group has lived in more than 30 different buildings, being evicted every single time. When I meet Adam and Khalid, they had just moved from the Christus Koningkerk (below) into a former university building at the James Wattstraat. Temperatures have fallen below zero and inside it’s as cold as outside. The electricity and heating are not working. Wearing our winter jackets to keep warm, Adam tells me that squatting is no sustainable solution. The living standard in the squats is very low. But it does provide a roof above their heads. This gives them time to try and reopen their asylum procedure and work on their future.
The squatting also serves as a mode of resistance. By placing themselves in the spotlight, they aim to put pressure on the government to take responsibility for the situation they are in. For Adam the eventual goal is to be able to live a normal life: a life in which he’s allowed to study and work. “I would open my own shop. Maybe with Sudanese food”, Adam fantasizes.
That’s all they ask the government, explains Khalid: “We want basic human rights. We ask the Dutch government to respect us as human beings”.
Over the years We Are Here has seen some successes. Khalid explains that 106 resident permits have been issued to members of We Are Here. This is partly because of all the support We Are Here receives from society. Khalid explains how people bring food, students teach language lessons, a doctor provides free healthcare and lawyers offer their services for free. Khalid and Adam appreciate every bit of help of Dutch society: “They stand with us in this difficult time”.
However, Adam points out that eventually it’s only the government that can offer a sustainable solution. Therefore, the strongest message of the Dutch society would be to vote for a government that treats every human being with dignity and respect.
Amsterdam is a city made by people of all origins and convictions. The city became what it is today because of tolerance for all. When we think of the future of Amsterdam, let’s remember its roots. The migrants of We Are Here are people who have the right – like every other Amsterdammer – to housing, healthcare and education. Together with all other Amsterdammers they make Amsterdam the best city in the world.
For more information on We Are Here visit: http://wijzijnhier.org/contact-us/
If anyone wants to support We Are Here or see what they are up to, feel free to visit them for a chat!
Words and Images by Casper te Riele
Thank you Casper for sharing this inspiring initiative with us! Keen on reading more about initiatives in our cities, or other stories on city life and culture? Take a look at our print journal.