Syrians: The difficulty of finding a place as a man

my knowledge – Young Syrian refugees and their views of gender and partner roles are often seen as problematic, dangerous, and undesirable. They will harm the Dutch identity. Rick Huizinga refutes this negative image in his thesis.

Male refugees from Muslim countries are often given forms of masculinity at odds with fictional sexual roles and relationships in the Netherlands. In social discussions, their gender identity appears incompatible with vulnerability on the one hand, but there is also the question of whether they are capable of change. In fact, their supposed masculinity is regularly associated with violence and danger, and is thus viewed as undesirable.

These men are often portrayed as fortune seekers, rapists or terrorists. This maintains the image that they are a threat to Dutch society. This image partially determines who can be here and limits how well they are able to organize their daily lives themselves.

Find the feeling of home

I wanted to understand how they try to develop feelings of patriotism and belonging in this often “hostile” environment. That’s why I interviewed 42 Syrian refugees in the north of the Netherlands. These conversations show that when certainty and routine are suddenly gone, it can be hard to feel at home and where you are. Many men were looking for recognition, peace, comfort, and security. But it turned out to be very difficult to find at the same time.

Many fled on their own, and some traveled before their partners and relatives. They had gone through many perilous and dangerous moments during an exhausting journey by land and sea, leaving them shocked to varying degrees. They also often lived in appalling conditions in asylum seekers’ centers. Due to the lack of privacy there, they were on constant alert.

The relationship caused additional stress. While waiting to be reunited with their families, these men often lived for a long time in isolation and insecurity. They also felt a great responsibility to arrange the future home, so that their family transition would go smoothly.

Loss of prestige and helplessness

The feeling of home is further complicated by the fact that many men see few future prospects. They have a feeling that they are still holding on in the Netherlands. Many feel misunderstood, experiencing a loss of status and a feeling of powerlessness. They have worked in Syria for years on their education and career. However, in the Netherlands, their degrees are rated lower and their professional competencies are underestimated.

Unmarried men in particular also realized that there was little potential for family planning due to their precarious situation. At the same time, they face a lot of pressure from family members, friends or local Muslim communities to make progress in their lives. All this makes them feel that they cannot live up to societal expectations and that their masculinity is called into question.

Discrimination and racism

In addition, these young Syrians have to deal with unpleasant experiences that go beyond the personal sphere. Many of them experience discrimination and racism in everyday life, which makes them feel like they don’t belong. On public transport, for example, they are checked the most and some other passengers refuse to sit next to them.

As a result, Syrian youth describe their everyday environment as hostile. This discourages them from seeking contact and they tend to withdraw more often. Some decided to shave their beards, change their style of dress, or be very careful about speaking Arabic in public.

Many feel misunderstood by assumptions and stereotypes about their masculinity. This is often seen as the pride of men from Muslim countries. Thus their experiences with discrimination and racism are ignored as a personal matter and not seen as a societal problem.

Emphasizing and modifying Syrian masculinity

To deal with these uncertainties, young Syrian refugees rely on formative experiences and events in their lives to which they feel familiar. At the same time, they also adjust their behavior as men depending on their expectations and desires for the future. In this way they show that they can indeed flexibly deal with gender roles and relationships. Thus, they questioned the prevailing narrative about the masculinity of Syrian men.

Young people in particular try to explore their masculine identity by emphasizing the aspects that make them ‘different’. They gather in groups in the Syrian “barbershop” or “Turkish supermarket”, where they speak Arabic among themselves. In the gardens they prepare dishes on the barbecue that remind them of home, and in the yards they play loud Arabic music to claim their place. They pay extra attention to the style of their clothes and the care of their hair and beard.

In this way they upset the prevailing traditional norms and values ​​- you don’t belong here – and try to find their place here as men.

Other men want to be good partners and fathers in their families. They realize that there are different expectations in their new situation. For example, some take on more household and care tasks while their partner is working or doing an internship.

This is often a new experience for them. They sometimes don’t even know where and when they can show vulnerability and emotion, and when to expect a more controlling role. As a result, they sometimes return to old, familiar patterns that do not fit into the new situation. So this anxiety regularly causes friction in the relationship.

The visible diffusion of aspects of Syrian identity and the return to old and recognized norms of behavior protect Syrian men from personal suffering and social violence on the one hand. On the other hand, these masculine identities can backfire when they do not fit into an environment that is perceived as “different” or threatening.

Experience the world of integration

My research findings show that young Syrian refugees experience vulnerabilities in different ways and use different forms of masculinity in response, depending on what the environment demands of them. Day in and day out, they do a lot of “emotional work” for a safe and successful future. They explore their own weaknesses and feelings by making emotional connections with everyday people and places.

When we look at “success stories” in “integration models,” it is mainly about “hard” forms of adaptation and participation, such as those who have mastered the language, have successfully completed an integration course or are active in the labor market.

While the responsibility in the Dutch integration system always rests with the assimilated person, little attention is paid to the experience of the person assimilated and the chaos of everyday life. But what exactly is expected of them, i.e., the modification of gender roles and their relations, cannot be obtained from the one-sided representations of masculinity in textbooks and assimilation courses.

Reading and navigating a community takes time and insight. So more attention is needed to the feelings and vulnerabilities of male refugees. To find out how they experience this in everyday life and what measures they take to reverse the prevailing stereotypes.


This article originally appeared on Social Vaagstukken. Rick Huizinga received his Ph.D. in 2022 from the University of Groningen with the thesis “At Home After Forced Migration”
. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Utrecht University.

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