“I was so afraid the sun would never shine in the Netherlands. But luckily it does occasionally!” Mawi Te Zahau from Myanmar (formerly Burma) is one of the 500 refugees the Dutch government selects every year to come and live in the Netherlands. She has just arrived in the country with her husband and three children and tells her story.
Mawi left Chin State in the west of Myanmar in 2006. She fled after being punished when her husband fled the country. She had to leave her three children behind. Thanks to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, they were able to join her two years later.
Mawi ended up in Delhi, India, where she found out her husband had died. She met her current husband in her new home town. As a family, they were selected for the UN refugee relocation programme.
The relocation programme is an initiative of the UNHCR. The organisation selects the refugees based on their need of protection and medical assistance. The Dutch government also assesses whether the people who have been selected are capable of integrating into Western society.
“If there are signs that people reject Western values, the nomination for relocation is turned down," says UNHCR's René Bruin. "Once, the UNHCR nominated two Vietnamese who were almost turned down because they were used to earning their living by begging in the streets. In the end they were accepted. To date very few people have been rejected because they might not be capable of integrating in the Netherlands.”
Every year around 500 refugees come to the Netherlands via the UN relocation programme. The Dutch immigration service IND visits the relocation candidates. They determine who will receive a residence permit and who will not. Every year there are about five missions to select the 500 people. This year they will go to Lebanon, Ecuador, Thailand and Kenya.
“When I heard that we were to go to the Netherlands, I was actually a bit disappointed,” Mawi admits. She has difficulty talking because of a hare lip, a condition two of her children have inherited. She had hoped they would end up in the United States, Canada or Australia.
“There are many people there from Myanmar. We don’t know anybody in the Netherlands. I couldn’t even find it on the map!," she says.
She became more positive when she learnt more about her future homeland. She took a four-day course in Dutch culture and heard her first Dutch words. “What a weird language,” she says amused.
Two weeks ago Mawi and her family finally arrived. “But we landed in thick fog. We’re so used to the sun, the sun is our life. And there was no sun in the Netherlands! What now?”
Sadly, things didn’t go according to plan. On arrival Mawi’s sick baby had to be rushed off to hospital by ambulance. The family spent four days in hospital. “And we didn’t see the sun at all.”
Luckily the sun broke through when they set off for their new home. “So this just has to be a good place,” Mawi laughs.
But when Jannie van Emst – a volunteer who is helping the Burmese family to settle – opened the door to their new home, it was not a laughing matter.
“There was absolutely nothing! The walls were bare, no wallpaper, no nothing. No stove, no beds. How are these people expected to live here?”
Ms Van Emst has rounded up her own family and friends to donate furniture. Mawi’s family only receives a small amount of money. They first need to be registered.
“How are they supposed to know where to go?," Ms Van Emst complains. "These people haven’t any idea what a euro is worth either. How can you expect somebody to know how much they can spend?”
While the rest of the family is watching Dutch TV in fascination, Mawi hoists her sick son on her back, wrapped in a traditional cloth. Time for yet another visit to the doctor and a crash course in shopping with Jannie. But she keeps on laughing: outside the sun is shining.
Refugee relocation programme
The refugee relocation programme was set up in 1995 by the UN refugee agency UNHCR. Each year they select around 100,000 refugees based on their need of protection. Only 80,000 of these refugees are relocated to another country.
The Netherlands has 500 places to offer. Most of the refugees – over 50,000 a year – are relocated to the United States. But the need for relocation is much greater. The UNHCR estimates that around 800,000 people worldwide need to be relocated every year.