‘I want to stand up for my fellow refugees’

Oh, those powerless months in Musselkanaal! Cycling eight kilometers from the asylum center to school through that mercilessly flat Groningen country. And then walking into a class with thirteen-year-olds – Aziz Kawak himself was seventeen at the time. He understood mathematics and chemistry too well, but could not explain this because he did not yet speak the language. And the worst part was that day, back from school, that his sister fell off her bike and hit the ground. She cried loudly. At home in Damascus he had simply called someone and asked for help. An uncle, a cousin, one of his mother’s six sisters. But now? He had no idea. He was just standing there. Along a chilly field. And he thought: this is it. You have to make do with this. I have to save myself here.

He focused on Dutch. But really. His language coach, an old woman, invited him home. He helped in her garden and played with her two children. He studied the dictionary. Watched Sunday with Lubachdidn’t understand a thousand words, kept watching.

He also recorded life in the asylum seekers’ center; Aziz Kawak had a camera with him. In Utrecht, where the family was assigned a house, he continued taking photographs. He arranged an exhibition, met a Dutch journalist and his choice of study was made: a media bachelor’s degree in Utrecht. Now things were going fast. In 2019, when he was twenty and had not yet been in the Netherlands for four years, he shot a documentary about the lives of Syrians in a Lebanese refugee camp a kilometer from his homeland. He photographed in camps in Calais, Greece.

But he wanted to do more. To help. He arranged for a truck full of supplies and drove to a camp in Dunkirk. Ended up at Vluchtelingenwerk Nederland through an Amsterdam NGO. Worked his way up to team leader in Gouda within a year and a half. Last October, Aziz Kawak, 25 years old, transferred to the national office of Refugee Council. Less than nine years after the reunification of his family in Musselkanaal, he talks to COA, IND and the ministry about, among other things, procedures regarding family reunification. He does this in Dutch so flawlessly that making a compliment feels out of place. He doesn’t mind it at all, such a compliment. Hello, he thinks, I’m no longer a newcomer!

Why did you decide to make a documentary in a camp in Lebanon in 2019?

“I had also been to Lebanon briefly a year before, for a school assignment. We had to do a photo project abroad. Most classmates chose Belgium or Germany, but that didn’t bother me. I was in the Netherlands for three years and longed to return to the Middle East. I came across that camp for Syrian refugees through someone else, and then I thought: there is much more to tell about this. So a year later I went there for a month and a half.”

Photo Lars van den Brink

What did you want to say?

“I wanted to make a story together with the refugees. From their perspective. So not one of those stories that a Western journalist makes, about the misery of living in a tent camp, but really about life there. I started following one Syrian, Abdulhadi, then 27 years old. What did his tent mean to him, where he had lived for six years? How did he spend his days? Did he want to go back to Syria? At first I only took photos, detailed shots of his child, his wife, his tent, but I thought: his story doesn’t really come across that way. I had never made a film before, only had a microphone costing 50 euros with me for sound recordings, and… I started making that documentary.”

I really wanted to save the world. I wanted to go wherever there was a disaster, like a kind of Syrian Eddy van Wessel

Abdulhadi constantly longed to return to Syria, he tells you in the film. Is that also true for you?

“No. Even then I was already in the phase of: my future is here in the Netherlands. Here I stay. The difference between him and me was emotional for myself. I was well received in the Netherlands, and he was unlucky enough to be in a tent in Lebanon.”

Did you start to look at yourself differently?

“Yes, that I was better off, thanks to my father [die vluchtte in 2014 zonder zijn gezin van Syrië naar Nederland]. I realized: I could have been in their situation too. And that is precisely why I wanted to convert my position, my position of power, so to speak, into telling their story.”

Was it humbling to be there?

“I felt guilty. I was there, with Abdulhadi and his family, but I knew: in a few weeks I can return to the good life. Back in the Netherlands I found it difficult for weeks to go out to eat and do fun things. When editing the film, I turned off my emotions. But shortly before the premiere, in a small theater in Utrecht, we went to test the sound and I saw Abdulhadi big on a cinema screen. I burst into tears. I thought: why do I have the right to show his life to two hundred people in a moment? It’s his privacy, his story, and people were watching from their good movie seats, while he was still in the same situation. Of course, you create awareness and how you tell a story matters, but I would have preferred if he were also in the audience. But he is still in that camp now.”

Are you still in touch with him?

“Not so active anymore. A few times a year. At some point I really let it go. Consciously, yes. I had done a lot. Too much, you might say. The bar was set very high. Stories about refugees in all kinds of places, photography, film. I really wanted to save the world at one point. In addition to being a student and someone who worked on his integration, I wanted to reach the top as a storyteller. I wanted to go wherever there was a disaster, like a kind of Syrian Eddy van Wessel [Nederlandse oorlogsfotograaf].”

Photo Lars van den Brink

But you eventually ended up at Vluchtelingenwerk, first in Gouda.

“Yes, because I realized: I wasn’t actually achieving the goal I wanted with those stories. Really help people. The interesting thing was, every time I did a story project, it got quite a lot of media attention, and I got into conversations with NGOs and also with politicians. I realized that I had a certain expertise because of what I had created and experienced myself, and people found that interesting. So I thought: I think I can do more than just make something. I can exert influence.”

Do you think you would have become as ambitious if there had been no war in Syria?

“I am also very curious about what my future would have looked like. I know I wouldn’t be who I am now. That I would have been less involved, less empathetic, I think. I think I was very much in my bubble. From a family in Damascus that was doing well.”

Where does your drive come from?

“What I do, I want to do well. I just want to keep growing and developing. And I also think I’ve done a lot for my parents. My parents fled to give us a better future. I have been given that opportunity, and I have to make the most of it.”

Why is growth, continued growth, a value in itself for you?

“I have seen that I have certain talents – setting up projects, telling stories, networking – and I want to put them to good use.”

Why do you want that?

“To have a good influence on my environment.”


“Because we live in quite a dangerous, sad, ugly world, and we are once on this earth, so I want to try to take care of myself and my environment as best as possible, and never regret opportunities which I have not used.”

How do you define your environment?

“My immediate environment. But also my fellow status holders, which I have also been. And my fellow Dutch people, to share my knowledge – about asylum, migration, refugees – with them.”

Did you have to encourage yourself here in the Netherlands?

“Yes! Really, really, yes.”

All the wars, hunger, climate change: things are going wrong. But that’s why I want to do small, good things in my own environment

Did you say certain things to yourself?

“Yes: just keep going. Even when I sometimes thought: I want to stand still for a moment, do nothing, like fellow students did, who went backpacking, for example, I didn’t do that. That just didn’t work. It was like a train that was moving, and you get on it, and you have to keep going.”

There was never a nice country you wanted to go to?

“No. At Vluchtelingenwerk in Gouda last year, I had an intern who was my age. He was also Syrian, Syrian-Iraqi. But born here. I asked what he was going to do after college. I don’t know, he said. Maybe a gap year, travel, and then a master’s degree. While: I was now a team leader and was looking into buying a house. And somehow I was jealous of him. Or jealous… In any case, I thought: why can’t I just be who he is? If I hadn’t fled, I thought, I might be a little more like him.”

The contrast with him suddenly made you notice what your path had become.

“Yes. But I also thought: what am I going to complain about? Yes, I have a lot of responsibility, but I’m young, I can do this. To persevere. Because you kind of have an obligation to use yourself to help others.”

Do you ever feel like a refugee?

“Yes, when people say: you speak Dutch very well. Or: where are you from?”

Does that happen often?

“Less than before, but still regularly, yes. And when I say: ‘I’m getting married to my girlfriend’, some people ask: ‘Will it be separate for men and women? And when I order a beer: ‘Do you drink alcohol?’ I may not necessarily feel like a refugee, but I do feel different.”

Photo Lars van den Brink

What was it like for you that the PVV became the largest?

“A shock. A confirmation that I do not belong in the Netherlands.”

A confirmation that you don’t belong here? That is a strong conclusion.

“Everything I do has to do with refugees and migration. And all your hard work, all your trying, comes in one fell swoop… A lot of people don’t agree with me being here, directly or indirectly. In the eyes of many others, I am not Dutch anyway.”

Do you walk around this country differently now?

“No. I let it go, I park it.”

The sky seems to be the limit in your career. What is your dream, your ambition?

“In ten years’ time, when I am 35, I would like to have a managerial or administrative position at an NGO, I hope Refugee Work, perhaps in combination with a political position. I do have a political ambition. To improve the image of refugees. To tell it like it is. To show how it really works. To stand up for my fellow refugees.”

And what does the world look like when you are 35?

“I’m not that optimistic. All the wars, hunger, climate change: things are going wrong. I am very realistic about that. But that’s why I want to do small, good things in my own environment.”

Many people think: the problems are so big, I can’t do anything.

“Last year there was an earthquake in Turkey and Syria. I then set up a consultation hour in Gouda for Dutch relatives of the people there. I couldn’t do much, but I could listen to them, think along with them, comfort them, be empathetic. Look, when my sister fell off her bike in 2015, I had no one, there on the side of the road. And I want to be someone for the person who has no one. That makes life worth living for me.”