Asylum seeker life narratives

By Marga Wind

Rodaan Al Galidi. Author: Vincent Mentzel

Almost every week, the refugee topic is mentioned in mass media. In November, the ‘Jungle of Calais’ made the headlines, because of the decision to evacuate it. At the beginning, when the removing of the encampment hasn’t started yet, the news reader said one thing that stroke me: “They do not know what is happening themselves, nobody told them what would hit them soon.” This citation actually summarizes the situation of refugees in Europe: we are all talking about them, forming an opinion about them, but we are not talking with them, and unfortunately few people are trying to imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes. Even though there are journalists that go into the camp to ask refugees about their situation, the asylum seekers’ voice is relatively absent. This is a pity, because the voice of those directly affected is essential to the discussion. Nevertheless, if you actively search for it, it is possible to find their voice, for example, in the life narratives of asylum seekers that illustrate what it is like to be an asylum seeker in Europe. Two examples of such asylum seeker life narratives are Hoe ik talent voor het leven kreeg (How I got talent for life) written by Rodaan Al Galidi, and Petit manuel du parfait réfugié politique (Small handbook of a perfect political refugee) authored by Mana Neyestani.

The writer of Hoe ik talent voor het leven kreeg, Rodaan Al Galidi, is an Iraquian writer and an engineer who came to the Netherlands in 1998 to demand asylum. In the book, he describes the procedures he had to go through. The story is based on the author’s life experiences, but it remains uncertain whether it is autobiographical or partly fiction. Petit manuel du parfait réfugié politique is a story told by images with small texts,  based on the life story of the author, Mana Neyestani, who is an Iranian cartoonist and an ilustrator that came to France in 2011 as a political refugee. The book is not only based on his story, but on the combination of other asylum seekers’ stories as well. This is an interesting and striking resemblance between the two books. It can be partially explained by the fact that the two authors have the feeling that, because they are able of telling a story to the public, they also carry the responsibility of communicating the struggle of other people. At the same time, it is something difficult to express, because it reveals aspects of the society that are not necessarily positive.

The stories of the authors can often be painful to read for an European. As mentioned before, the image shown in the books is very different from the image that exists in the public debate, which is often quite positive. It is frequently said that the task of Europe is to help the refugees. The public debate suggests that helping is what we do, and as we are civilized countries, a lot of people suppose that this happens in a correct and humane way. The asylum seeker life narratives show that the image that a lot of asylum seekers have is not coherent with the image in the public debate. In the books, the authors write, for instance, about suicide amongst asylum seekers, the procedures of asylum demand and the way in which they are treated and left alone without help or housing.

The following quote from Hoe ik talent voor het leven kreeg points out that the length of the procedure is one of the problems that exists in the Netherlands. It can take up to 16 years, during which the life of the asylum seeker is put on hold: he/she does not have the right to work or study and has to wait in the asylum seeker’s state for his/her demand to be processed:

From the moment I entered the refugee centre, I saw faces with an expression I did not see before. I did not see this in the four wars I had seen in my life, nor in all the countries I crossed during my refuge, before coming to Europe. It did not bear resemblance to extreme sadness, nor to a deadly illness or a terrible fear. It did not resemble to anything. Only after years I understood what it was: the waiting. People sometimes wait here for years. Some people ten years, or five, or eight. In the refugee centre, somebody’s longest waiting period was of more than sixteen years. (R. Al Galidi, Hoe ik talent voor het leven kreeg, p. 88)

This has significant effects on the mental health of the asylum seekers, and might even result in suicide, as confirmed by a Dutch study of Bakker, Dagevos and Engbers. They state: “First, we found that having stayed in asylum accommodation for more than 5 years negatively affects refugees’ mental health which in turn hampers their socio-economic integration.” Even though suicide amongst asylum seekers in the Netherlands is known by scholars, it seems to be unknown by the larger public. The following quotation ilustrates how the length of the asylum procedures affects the mental health of the characters in Hoe ik talent voor het leven kreeg:

“Are there asylum seekers that commit suicide?” I asked. “For sure. During the first five years of the procedure they barely think of suicide.” Walid stopped talking, and counted. “I am in my thirteenth year. So ready for suicide for already eight years.” He laughed loudly. “I am just ready for it.” Foeaad said, whereafter they started to talk about an asylum seeker from Iran who comitted suicide a year ago. (R. Al Galidi, Hoe ik talent voor het leven kreeg, p. 98)

In France, the length of the waiting time is shorter. Maybe for this reason, we do not see mental problems such as suicide represented in Petit manuel du parfait réfugié politique. Even though the asylum seekers do not have to wait for years, the lentgh of the procedures is still very long, as the following picture shows us:

M. Neyestani, Petit manuel du parfait réfugié politique, p. 57

The length of the procedures is not the only problem that we discover in Petit manuel du parfait réfugié politique. More shocking is the way in which the lawyer, who should help every asylum seeker is represented as corrupt, for example as in the following images:


M. Neyestani, Petit manuel du parfait réfugié politique, p.77-78

The first picture explains that every asylum seeker can get the help of a lawyer during the asylum procedure. The second one shows that this lawyer is not very effective, and that often he does not even show up in court. The third image indicates that you have to pay for a good lawyer. This means that not all of the asylum seekers have the same opportunity: money makes the process of asylum demand much easier. This is contrary tot he image that is given by the authorities or the image that often exists in the news. We find a similar situation in Hoe ik talent voor het leven kreeg.

Another important resemblance between the issues described in the two books is that both end with the main character who finally obtains a residence permit, which means he can start his life in the host country. This sounds easy, but according to the books, the contrary is true: in both stories, the main character is described as ‘uprooted’. The following image from Petit manuel du parfait réfugié politique and the quotation from Hoe ik talent voor het leven kreeg show how this is represented by the authors:

M. Neyestani, Petit manuel du parfait réfugié politique, p.130

Physically and mentally I had changed. The social service knew Semmier [author’s note: name of the main character], just like the reception of the refugee centre, the police and the Immigration and Naturalisation Service. But I did not know him. I needed to get to know him to be able to continue my life. (R. Al Galidi, Hoe ik talent voor het leven kreeg, p. 472)

Hoe ik talent voor het leven kreeg and Petit manuel du parfait réfugié politique prove that being an asylum seeker in Europe can be very difficult for several reasons. They show that the conditions in the host countries are not perfect, and that the European states can still improve a lot, unlike it is often suggested in the public debate. If we want to relieve the situation for the refugees, it is very important to start the conversation with them, and to listen carefully to what they have to say. 


[1] R. Al Galidi, Hoe ik talent voor het leven kreeg (Amersfoort: De Vrije Uitgevers, 2016)

[2] M. Neyestani, Petit manuel du parfait réfugié politique, (Issy-les-Moulineaux and Bussy-Saint-Georges: Arte Éditions and Editions çà et là, 2015)

[3] L. Bakker, J. Dagevos, and G. Engbersen, “The Importance of Resources and Security in the Socio-Economic Integration of Refugees. A Study on the Impact of Length of Stay in Asylum Accommodation and Residence Status on Socio-Economic Integration for the Four Largest Refugee Groups in the Netherlands”, International Migration & Integration 15 (2014): 445


Marga Wind
Marga holds a Master’s degree in European Studies, Identity and Integration from the University of Amsterdam. She has also finished a Bachelor’s degree in French Language and Culture. Marga chose ‘asylum seeker life narratives’ as the subject of her master's thesis, which made her aware of the fact that asylum seekers and refugees in Europe are often in a very difficult position. According to her opinion, it is very important to gain more attention for the subject of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, whose voices are often marginalized.


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