NOS Nieuws•vandaag, 02:02
“The Netherlands is a beautiful country, but it is difficult to work there,” is how Syrian surgeon Belal Alrefaj (35) from Dordrecht summarizes his experiences. He fled Syria in 2016 with his then pregnant wife. His three children aged 6, 5 and 2 were born here.
“I have sent out a hundred applications for jobs, work experience placements and internships,” says the doctor, who gained experience as a testing and vaccination employee at the GGD during the pandemic and is now trying to certify his diploma. “But the answer is always a rejection, usually without reason. They say that I must have work experience in a Dutch hospital or have a Dutch diploma.”
There are now about 150,000 Syrians in the Netherlands. The group that came to the Netherlands between 2014 and 2016 is relatively young; 32 percent have a higher education. Just over half of Syrians have paid work, according to research by, among others, the Scientific Research and Documentation Center (WODC) of the Ministry of Justice and Security that was published today: 55 percent have a job, compared to 71 percent of Dutch people. population. These are often jobs in lower-paid sectors such as transport and catering.
“We see a twofold picture,” says Mieke Maliepaard, project leader and researcher at WODC. “Particularly when we look at work, you see that labor market participation has increased since their arrival in the Netherlands and continues to increase: more permanent contracts, more hours worked. On the other hand, the positive development of the first years is stabilizing or even declining: less social contacts, a large group is socially lonely.”
How is the integration of Syrians in the Netherlands going, was the main question of the research that the WODC conducted in collaboration with Erasmus University and RIVM. Based on three measurement moments, in 2017, 2019 and 2022, the Ministry of Justice research center mapped out how a group of 3,000 Syrians who fled between 2014 and 2016 are doing.
Alrefaj now works as a volunteer community caregiver and his wife is doing a secondary vocational education. Because she receives student finance, his social assistance benefits are cut and it is almost impossible for them to make ends meet.
Maliepaard: “The financial situation of most Syrians is still relatively unfavourable. More than half of the people indicate that they have difficulty making ends meet at the end of the month (57 percent); this has increased compared to 40 percent in 2019.” Only 18 percent of this group has a financial buffer of 1,300 euros or more, compared to 84 percent of the Dutch population in general.
This financial vulnerability is partly the result of problems that affect many more people. “Due to the war in Ukraine and inflation, our profit margins are getting smaller,” explains restaurant owner Jihad Asad. “So we have to work hard to make ends meet.”
He previously worked as a regional manager in Dubai for a Syrian wholesaler with 100,000 employees and completed an MBA in the United States. Now he works ten to twelve hours a day in his restaurant Le’moene in Amsterdam.
“In the beginning I made friends in the Netherlands, but now I no longer have the time or energy for that. We pay our taxes and daily expenses, but I lack perspective.” When asked if he is ever lonely, he answers emphatically “Yes, but having a family compensates for that.”
More than half of the Syrians interviewed say they are lonely, compared to 11 percent of Dutch people. How this happens will be further investigated, says Maliepaard. Contacts with Dutch people are also decreasing. “A possible explanation is that in the beginning there is a lot of support from organizations such as Vluchtelingenwerk. When that ends, some contacts with the Dutch also disappear.”
How can that be better? 60 percent of Syrians choose to have their diploma certified in the Netherlands. “You actually want everyone to do this. But people think it won’t help them, or they don’t have the right documents,” Maliepaard explains. “The people who have done it are relatively satisfied with it, it increases their chances. It is positive that attention is paid to this during integration, perhaps even more use can be made of it.”
Surgeon Alrefaj is studying for two Dutch language proficiency exams that he still has to take in order to be able to use his Syrian training. Previously, he said, he had not received any guidance in this regard, although he did ask for it from a refugee organization.
Private photo by Nizar Karkout
For others, converting a diploma is no longer an option. Structural engineer Nizar Karkout (65) was 58 when he came to the Netherlands. “I spent two years in an asylum center in Arnhem and was working on the language. When I got a house, I started taking language lessons at Leiden University and that took a long time. Suddenly I was 62. Studying, you don’t get loan or grant will cost more. Your benefits will also stop. I did an internship as a heating designer, but I could not continue because it was difficult to get used to the Dutch standardization system in a short period of time.”
Yet Karkout, who used to have an architectural firm with his wife, has a job at the bicycle shed of the LUMC in Leiden. “I’m happy, I’m working to participate.” His wife, who did have her diploma converted, works as a draftsman at an engineering firm.