Welcome to Living Labels, where we look past preconceptions and listen to the human story behind the labels.
What’s the most important, is that we don’t judge persons on their appearance, but listen to each other’s stories and respect each other.
In this collection of personal stories, interviewees talk about the stereotypes they encounter in everyday life. Others are quick to attach labels to them, but often forget that a person cannot be summarised in one word only. This is the story of Samar Al-Areqi, Software Engineer at Shell. She came to the Netherlands from Yemen, a war-torn country. In the Netherlands she spent a year in a refugee center. Her response on how she labels herself, is ‘Muslim’.
How was it for you having to live in an asylum seekers’ center?
The first couple of days were difficult. I think that was because I was all alone. But I learned quickly that if you try to communicate with others and accept them for who they are, it becomes a bit better. People who didn’t do that, got very depressed. I’ve seen a lot of them spiraling and having suicidal thoughts.
After a couple of weeks I tried to accept the situation and study a lot to keep my mind busy. For example I studied the Dutch language through an online course of the Erasmus University. I sang Dutch songs and found out that music makes me learn words easier. I like the song ‘Waar Ben Jij’, by André Hazes. It’s very beautiful.
I also eventually made a lot of friends at the asylum center. I met one of my best friends, an Uyghur woman from China. She told me a lot about her people and the penal camps that they’re in. She managed to escape to Malaysia, but wasn’t given the Malaysian nationality. So when her visa expired, she had to decide whether she would go back to China or would try to move somewhere else. And that’s how she ended up in the Netherlands. She has to be very careful in contacting her family, in order not to endanger them.
Being here taught me that sharing with and listening to people is a way to create an open environment. It’s a way to educate one another and learn about each other’s culture.
I’ve also heard stories from other refugees how difficult life has been for them. That they had to sleep in forests and had their money and belongings stolen from them. They suffered tremendously before reaching the Netherlands. When I was in Yemen, I never heard about this. My community was like a bubble.
What was living in Yemen like before you came to the Netherlands?
Before the civil war, that started in 2015, living in Yemen was very nice. I was working at an oil company and didn’t encounter any obstacles. The situation was stable. After the war started, I didn’t feel safe anymore. It was a dangerous time and my situation wasn’t stable. My house was hit by a rocket, and the windows and the doors were broken. So I had to move house a lot, for example to hotels, even to my husband’s family. I lost my job, but nevertheless I kept on studying for my MBA at Sana’a University. It took me five years instead of two to graduate because of circumstances during the war. A lot of the time there weren’t any professors to teach us.
My brother’s wife for example works as a teacher, but during the war there were periods she had to wait for 6 months to have her salary paid by the government. But she just kept on teaching even though she wasn’t able to buy food for her children.
Living in Yemen was a struggle. My brother’s wife for example works as a teacher, but during the war there were periods she had to wait for 6 months to have her salary paid by the government. But she just kept on teaching even though she wasn’t able to buy food for her children. Life became very expensive over there, even basic stuff like clothes and food.
In 2019 I got an opportunity to move to the Netherlands to attend the graduation ceremony of my Business administration and receive my certificate. I traveled to Egypt to get the visa and after it expired, I had to take a big decision. Because of the unstable situation in Yemen I wanted to stay in the Netherlands for a longer time.
When I spoke to my husband about this decision, we didn’t see eye to eye at first. He thought it was the wrong decision, moving so far away from our family, friends and the society we grew up in. But now he’s proud of me for taking that decision.
My mother cried when she heard I wanted to leave. But my father always supported me. He said that I should try and do whatever I want, as long I take good care of myself. It’s one of his last advices he gave me before he died. He was in bad health and passed away when I was living in the asylum center.
After one year in the Dutch asylum center, I moved to a house in Spijkenisse. I quickly wanted to improve my skills in order to find a job, so I immediately applied for several courses through RefugeeForce and Salesforce. That changed my life. I became a certified Salesforce Administrator, which qualified me to join the traineeship at Shell. I have successfully graduated from the traineeship and I will start as a Software Engineer at Shell in October. I’m just very grateful to Shell for this opportunity to grow. I feel at home here and my colleagues are very friendly, helpful and cooperative.
My move to the Netherlands has definitely changed my destiny.
My move to the Netherlands has definitely changed my destiny. In Yemen, after marriage a woman usually becomes a housewife and takes care of the house and family. But that has never been my ambition. Instead, want to develop myself and be independent. I never wanted to rely on others.
So I applied to jobs. My friends also helped me out a lot, one of them gave my resumé to the oil company that I worked for in Yemen. I learned a lot when I worked there, not only skills but also about life. For example, the general manager at that company was an American in his eighties. While in Yemen, he tried to learn Arabic and even fasted during Ramadan. He was the only one of the foreign executives who did this. I really respected him because of his efforts to understand and respect our culture.
Those values like appreciation for other cultures and acceptance of diversity, that’s also something I like in companies. At Shell for example they created a space for meditation where people also can go to pray. There are two rooms right next to each other, one for men and one for women. I was really surprised when I saw it. There was a carpet to pray on and running water that people can wash themselves with. Exactly like what I’m used to in mosques.
Also, a lot of my colleagues are from different cultural backgrounds, from different countries and different societies, but all of us are equal. It’s not about where we come from, but about our personal talents and how we can help each other to grow. When I first joined Shell, they said that it’s important to support each other. Because they believe in diversity and that no one should feel like a stranger in another country.
Have you ever felt like a stranger in the Netherlands?
No, I haven’t. I have made a lot of good friends here. There also is a community of Yemeni and Syrian people in Spijkenisse who I’m very close with. I consider them my family, because we share a similar history. We all moved from our countries because of war.
And I haven’t been discriminated against in the Netherlands up until now. As a matter of fact, I think there might be less discrimination here on the surface than elsewhere. In the Netherlands I don’t feel people staring at my hejab. When I was in other European countries, there was a lot more open discrimination and racism. But in a country like Germany, a white man came up to me and my husband when we were walking down the street. He literally said to me in my face that he hated Muslims and their hejabs. And I have a relative in France that was bullied because she wears a hejab. The society doesn’t want her to wear one. The idea that people didn’t like Muslims was something very new to me, because a large majority of people in Yemen is Muslim. Wearing something like a hejab or a niqab is normal.
Don’t let anyone tell you what to do.
To me, anyone can shape themselves the way they want to. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do. I know a lot of Muslim women, either Yemeni or not, that don’t wear a hejab. But I feel that they shouldn’t be judged because of that. You don’t know what’s behind a decision. I have a friend who doesn’t wear one. She often gets asked why. But they don’t know that she has a medical condition that has to do with the skin on her head.
Another example. My father didn’t fast during Ramadan, because he had issues with his blood sugar and the doctor told him he had to eat. That decision doesn’t make him a bad Muslim. He had a profound knowledge of his religion. What’s the most important, is that we don’t judge persons on their appearance, but listen to each other’s stories and respect each other.
What does the future look like for you?
My goal for the future is that I want to be a Dutch citizen. I hope that I can apply for a passport after a couple of years. Living in Spijkenisse is great, it’s very beautiful. My husband also found a job here in his field.
What I wanted to add, is that I love being a Muslim in the Netherlands. I know it’s not easy for others to express their religion the way I do. But I want them to know that it’s okay to be proud to be a Muslim. Our religion teaches to accept each other. If we reflect our religion and represent this belief, we can have a positive influence on other people.