Fleeing conscription in Saddam Hussein’s army, an Iraqi refugee finds himself in a different kind of hell after he applies for asylum in the Netherlands.
By the time Samir Karim lands in Schiphol airport in 1998, he has already spent seven years trying to set down anchor somewhere in the world. The Dutch, he has heard, are lenient with asylum. Coming from war-torn Iraq, Karim has a powerful case. The problem is the Dutch have heard it all before, and Karim’s application soon gets snared in bureaucratic procedures. He whiles away years, waiting with his assigned two blankets, three sheets, a towel, a pillow, and a pillowcase, to obtain an official residence permit. Karim meets close to 500 fellow refugees at the asylum seekers’ center. Waiting in the center, not knowing when the all-important letter from immigration will arrive, is modern-day purgatory. Al Galidi, himself an Iraqi refugee in the Netherlands, leans on his experiences to describe the cacophony that’s the ASC. A parade of colorful refugee seekers fills in a striking picture of what life’s like on the inside. Does conversion to Christianity help? Rumor has it that it might. “Whoever goes to the mosque gets sent to the jihad, and whoever goes to the church gets a residence permit. I think the church is better,” says Fatima, with a sardonic sense of humor. Karim is an entertaining—if occasionally coarse—protagonist who expertly dissects the statelessness that plagues today’s refugees. In one of the more touching moments, a 7-year-old born at the center claims it as his country—he has seen nothing else. The nuanced narrative does not hide darker currents of depression or loss of personhood.
A blunt and surprisingly humorous peek at an aspect of global displacement that remains largely hidden from public view.