Syrians: difficulty finding space as a man

BACKGROUND – Young Syrian male refugees and their views on gender and partner roles are often seen as problematic, dangerous and undesirable. They would damage the Dutch identity. Rik Huizinga refutes this negative image in his thesis.

Male refugees from Islamic countries are often assigned forms of masculinity that contradict imagined gender roles and relationships in the Netherlands. In societal debates, on the one hand, their gender identity seems incompatible with vulnerability, but their ability to change is also questioned. In fact, their supposed masculinity is regularly associated with violence and danger, and is therefore seen as undesirable.

These men are often portrayed as fortune seekers, rapists or terrorists. This perpetuates the image that they pose a threat to Dutch society. This image partly determines who they can be here, and limits the extent to which they can organize their everyday life themselves.

Search for home feeling

I wanted to understand how they try to develop feelings of home and belonging in this often ‘hostile’ environment. For this I interviewed 42 Syrian male refugees in the north of the Netherlands. These conversations show that when certainties and routines suddenly disappear, it is harder to feel at home and at home with you. Many men were looking for recognition, peace, comfort and security. But at the same time it turned out to be very difficult to find.

Many fled alone, and some traveled ahead of their partners and relatives. They have experienced many perilous and dangerous moments during an exhausting journey by land and sea, which have left them traumatized to varying degrees. They also often lived in terrible conditions in the asylum centres. Due to lack of privacy there, they were on constant alert.

A relationship brought extra stress. Expecting to be reunited with their families, these men often lived for a long time in loneliness and uncertainty. They also felt a great responsibility to get the future house in order so that their family’s move-in would go smoothly.

Loss of status and powerlessness

A sense of home is further complicated by the fact that many men see little future prospects. They have the feeling that they are standing still in the Netherlands. Many feel misunderstood, experience a loss of status and a feeling of powerlessness. In Syria, they have worked for years on their education and career. In the Netherlands, however, their diplomas are rated lower and their professional competences are underestimated.

Single men in particular also realized that there was little prospect of family planning given their precarious situation. At the same time, they experience great pressure from family members, friends or local Islamic communities to make progress in their lives. All of this makes them feel that they cannot live up to society’s expectations and that their masculinity is being questioned.

Discrimination and racism

In addition, these young Syrians must deal with unpleasant experiences that transcend the personal domain. Many of them experience discrimination and racism in their daily lives, which makes them feel that they do not belong. In public transport, for example, they are checked more often than others, and some fellow passengers refuse to sit next to them.

As a result, the young Syrian men describe their daily environment as hostile. This discourages them from seeking contact and they tend to withdraw more often. Some decided to shave their beards, change their dress style or be very careful about speaking Arabic in public places.

Many feel misunderstood because of the assumptions and stereotypes about their masculinity. This is often seen as pride in men from Islamic countries. Their experiences with discrimination and racism are thus disregarded as a personal matter and not seen as a societal problem.

Highlighting and adjusting Syrian masculinity

To deal with these uncertainties, the young Syrian refugees rely on formative experiences and events in their lives that they feel familiar with. At the same time, they also adapt their behavior as men depending on their expectations and wishes for the future. In this way, they show that they can actually handle gender roles and relationships flexibly. They thus cast doubt on the dominant narrative about Syrian men’s masculinity.

Young men in particular try to explore their masculine identity by highlighting aspects that make them ‘different’. They meet in groups at the Syrian ‘barbershop’ or the ‘Turkish supermarket’, where they speak Arabic among themselves. In parks they prepare dishes on the grill that remind them of home, and in squares they play loud Arabic music to claim their place. They pay extra attention to their clothing style and the care of their hair and beard.

In this way, they disrupt the usual conventional norms and values ​​– you don’t belong here – and try to find their place here as men.

Other men want to be good partners and fathers in their families. They realize that there are different expectations for their new situation. For example, some take on more household and care tasks while their partner works or is doing an internship.

This is often a new experience for them. Sometimes they don’t yet know where and when to show vulnerability and emotion and when a more dominant role is expected. As a result, they sometimes fall back into old and familiar patterns that do not fit the new situation. This unrest therefore regularly causes friction in a relationship.

The visible spread of Syrian identity aspects and the relapse into old, recognizable norms of behavior therefore protect Syrian men from personal suffering and social violence on the one hand. On the other hand, these male identities can backfire when they do not fit into an environment where they are perceived as ‘different’ or a threat.

Experience the world of the integrator

My research findings show that young Syrian refugees experience vulnerability in different ways and use different forms of masculinity in response, depending on what the environment asks of them. Day in and day out they do a lot of ’emotional work’ for a secure and successful future. They explore their own vulnerabilities and emotions by creating emotional connections with people and everyday places.

When we look at ‘success stories’ about ‘integration role models’, however, it is mainly about ‘hard’ forms of adaptation and participation, such as those who have mastered the language, have successfully completed their integration course or are active in the labor market.

While the responsibility in the Dutch integration system is invariably placed with the integrating person, very little attention is paid to the experience of the integrating person and the messy daily life. But exactly what is expected of them, namely the adaptation of gender roles and relationships, cannot be obtained from one-sided representations of masculinity in textbooks and integration courses.

Reading and navigating a society takes time and insight. There is therefore a need for more attention to the feelings and vulnerabilities of male refugees. For how they experience these in everyday life and what measures they take to reverse dominant stereotypes.


This article originally appeared on Social Vaagstukken. Rik Huizinga obtained his Ph.D. in 2022 at the University of Groningen with the thesis ‘Home after forced migration’
. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Utrecht University.

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