Salim, entrepreneur, activist

Interview and photograph by Joris van Erp

Salim Abbara fled from Syria to the Netherlands when the civil war broke out. He tries to support the Syrian community in the Netherlands through activism, as he sees that integration remains a difficult process for many refugees. Despite great challenges, Salim remains committed to building an inclusive society in the Netherlands.

‘’My goal is to change people’s mentalities; to expand their horizon. If you look outside your usual circles, you will see that we have more in common than what separates us.’’

Salim is 34 years old and he lives in Werkendam (North Brabant), but he was born in Homs. After studying Business Administration in Cyprus, he worked for the renovation of  road infrastructure and as the manager of his family business. When the Syrian uprising started in 2011, he got involved by spreading videos and stories about the brutality of the regime’s response. While Salim speaks openly and lightheartedly about these events, his story is shocking. He was detained and tortured by the government, and his family received death threats. As soon as he was released, he fled to Egypt.

While he had to start over from scratch, Salim strived to support fellow refugees in Egypt.  He volunteered for Save the Children and trained over 1250 Syrian refugees in seminars and workshops.

Yet, persistent threats from Syria made him fear for the safety of his family, and he decided to try to reach the safety of Europe. In a small boat, he crossed the Mediterranean sea and after eight days without food, they reached Italy. He applied for asylum in the Netherlands, and received his residence permit.

Salim has lived in the Netherlands for almost four years now. Although he is grateful for being able to live and work here in freedom and safety, he has repeatedly encountered prejudice and even hostility as a Syrian refugee.

‘’I have applied for vacancies about a hundred times without getting a job. People have publicly asked me what I was doing in the Netherlands and why I would not go home’’.

‘’Integration remains a struggle. Refugees lack the support and the chance to integrate successfully.’’

As the manager and owner of a removal firm, he struggles to find customers as they often prefer to work with non-migrants. ‘’Syrians do not want to be dependent and unproductive. Fear of financial insecurity and a lack of knowledge of the Dutch labour market are however keeping them in welfare. Add to that all the mandatory paperwork and the cultural differences between Syria and the Netherlands, and you see why integration remains difficult to achieve.’’

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