Keeping up appearance

When the "Eurotopia" dream is crushed, many refugees tell a different story to families back home.

In the pram, a toddler snoozes in the afternoon sunshine. She is dressed in a flashy pink tutu, a tiny little leather jacket, and it is all styled off by a set of golden necklaces. The mom proudly says she bought it all on the high-end mall on the island. The mother’s name is Hope, a refugee from Nigeria, and the scenery is Malta; the lesser-known equivalent of Lampedusa.

Contrary to what her daughter’ outfit might suggest, Hope is one of the many asylum-seekers struggling to make ends, as her temporary permit restricts labour.

But if the girl’s ensemble seems to deceive, it was only because it was exactly what Hope was aiming for. “My mother-in-law has been asking for photos of Tisha for weeks now, so I saved all my allowances and tips so I could buy some new designer clothes for her. Now we have finally send her the pictures” says Hope. It is a paradox visible in all of Europe; financially struggling immigrants who are spending their low resources on keeping up appearances.

It is in a sense comparable with the social media platform ‘Instagram’. A sugar-coated life is showcased for the outside, while a life less fortunate is deliberately left out. Where perhaps Instagram’s deception is fuelled by vanity and insecurity, the roots of the phenomenon among immigrant are deeper, and consequences more painful. “From the money I have left over after I pay for my apartment, I send almost everything back home. I cannot send less, they think [I am] now in Europe, that [I] now have money. I have to own up to that, I cannot disappoint my family” says Lewis. Like most immigrants, Lewis is working illegally and only earns a third of the average payment as a construction worker, yet he would rather spend his last dime on a new belt than saving for a new fridge.

Growing numbers of refugees reaching Europe face a harsh reality. They expected to find ‘Eurotopia’ as some refugees described their expectations about Europe, but many immigrants are struggling to adjust to life in Europe. Often reported obstacles are securing employment, housing, cultural barriers, and isolation. But these shattered dreams and difficult conditions are not the stories told to family back home. Walou, an immigrant from Mali, says it comes to pride and honour, two very important social factors in his culture: “If I would tell my family how I life here, I would have failed. All would have been for nothing”. Honour and shame dynamics are important cultural features in sub-Saharan and Arabic countries, from where many refugees depart. These values are central to understand the difficult position immigrants find themselves in.

The same feeling is experienced by Ohromodion from Nigeria, ‘if I don’t send money back home now, I cannot come back. This expected from me, because they think I am now rich in Europe’. Walou and Ohromodion both had family living in Europe before they fled themselves, but neither was told about the harsh reality of life as an asylum seeker. “If somebody has a reason to leave our country, it is no use telling them about true Europe, they need to leave anyway” says Walou, “I would not tell them. In our community, everybody knows each other and I would not want my family to feel ashamed in our village that I failed.”

This leaves many immigrants in a limbo, where they miss a social safety net in the country they currently live in and cannot discuss their struggles with family and friends back home. “I do not even call my mother any more” confesses Abdul, “if I hear her voice I want to cry. She cannot hear me cry, she would know immediately that something is wrong”. Living in such isolated situations makes life hard for immigrants. Keeping up appearance for honour and grace takes a toll on emotional stability. Mercy recalls, “I can never go back home, yet I am still part of that community, so I need to think about my status over there, the honour of my family. But it is too hard to be responsible for two different lives, I cannot meet all expectations.” Even after so many shattered expectations, some migrants still clinch to last straws of hope, like Zahgra “Nobody ever told me how life was in Europe, this is hell. Soon I will try to leave Malta to go to England where my cousin lives. I think life is better there”. One can only hope that his cousin is not sugar-coating reality too.

Author's note: all names have been changed to protect the security of the interviewees.
Femke Maurits

Femke has studied International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam, where she specialized in WASH issues in urban settings and international development cooperation, especially North-South partnerships. She works for the Dutch Council for Refugees and she is part of a large Zero Waste project called ROUTE12. Femke has keen interest for environment issues and solutions.
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